Saturday 30 December 2023

2023: My Year in Reading—A Retrospect

As 2023 comes to a close, it’s time to review what I read in the last year. How did my habits change compared to 2022 and what themes emerged from the books that made it from my TBR and onto my nightstand? As usual, I tracked my progress via Goodreads and set myself a challenge on the platform, so to keep up with what I’m reading in 2024, make sure you connect with me there.

In 2023, I read 50 books (compared to 60 in both 2021 and 2022). At this slower pace, I had to average ~50 pages a day, which was still at times a tough ask, but achievable during what has been a hectic year.

I leaned towards selecting books by female writers—38 of the books I read this year were by women and 12 were by men.

Novels made up the bulk of my reading material—they accounted for 36 out of 50 reads. But I also read 10 works of non-fiction, three plays/collections of plays, and one collection of short stories.

As you might expect from a writer of historical fiction, the genre remains my favorite—19 of the books I read in 2023 fit into this category. But I also read 5 novels with strong fantasy/speculative elements and 4 that dealt with mystery and/or crime. 

Nine of the authors I read this year are known to me personally. Congratulations again to Hope C. Tarr, Nancy Bilyeau, and Nicole Evelina for the publication of their 2023 novels and to Richard Huddleson for his dramatic translation.

I reviewed five of the novels I read on this blog, so check out the full posts for my take on each of them. They were Karen Joy Fowler’s Booth (2022), Gina Marie Guadagnino’s The Parting Glass (2019), Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s The Daughter of Doctor Moreau (2022), Julie Gerstenblatt’s Daughters of Nantucket (2023), and Rachel Cantor’s Half-Life of a Stolen Sister (2023).

The top theme that emerged from my reading this year was romantic and/or intense relationships between women characters. Yiyun Li's The Book of Goose (2022), Julia Fine's Maddalena and the Dark (2023), Gina Marie Guadagnino's The Parting Glass (2019), and Emily M. Danforth's The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2012) all fit into this category.

I also read two Bronte-related books (Lucasta Miller’s The Bronte Myth (2001) and Rachel Cantor’s Half-Life of a Stolen Sister (2023)), and two ballet-related books (Adrienne Sharp’s White Swan, Black Swan: Stories (2002) and Alice Robb’s Don’t Think, Dear: One Loving and Leaving Ballet (2023)).

One thing I enjoyed this year was mixing up my reading by turning to books I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen by myself but ended up loving. A book club led to me reading Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart (2021), while Ursula Parrott’s Ex-Wife (1929) was a gift that became one of my favorite reads of the year.

Going into 2024, I hope to continue to bring this same spirit of experimentation to my reading. I’m looking forward to seeing which 50 books I turn to next… 

What were your top reads of 2023? Let me know—here, on Instagram, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Want to keep up with my reading and writing? Sign up for my email newsletter here.

Thursday 30 November 2023

The Secret Victorianist’s 2023 Holiday Gift Guide

Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays to everyone celebrating this festive season and welcome (back?) to the Secret Victorianist—my blog dedicated to nineteenth-century literature and culture. In today’s post, I share some gift (or let’s face it, self-gifting) ideas for lovers of books and Victoriana. Let me know what you think and what else is top of your wish list…

For the busy bookworm… Consider giving them an annual subscription to Audible, so they can listen to books with their hands full or while on the go.

For the Victorianists who read the footnotes… The Longman Annotated Poets series is incredible. Why not pick up their Selected Edition of Tennyson’s poetry?

For historical fiction fans… Some of the best #HistFic books I read this year were Booth by Karen Joy Fowler, Joan by Katherine J. Chen, The Daughter of Dr. Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, A Witch in Time by Constance Sayers, and The Orchid Hour by Nancy Bilyeau.

For fans of the Victorian aesthetic… Buy them a locket or a cape or a fan or a corset or a parasol or a print of a Pre-Raphaelite painting or William Morris wallpaper. 

For those looking to time travel… Consider booking an experience (e.g., getting tickets to a ball, visiting a stately home, or having afternoon tea).

For letter writers… Beautiful, monogrammed stationery makes for a wonderful gift. Wax seal = optional. 

For Bronte fans… My fiction pick for the year is Rachel Cantor’s Half-Life of a Stolen Sister (check out my review here) or my own novel Bronte’s Mistress, of course, while I recommend Lucasta Miller’s The Bronte Myth to those who prefer non-fiction.

For historical novelists… Buy them a ticket to the Historical Novel Society Conference 2024, at Dartington Hall in the UK. We’re going to have a blast. 

Have more ideas to add to my list? Share them below, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Want a signed copy of Hope C. Tarr’s Irish Eyes (2023), another great historical fiction read? Sign up to my monthly email newsletter by December 7th for a chance to win!

Tuesday 21 November 2023

A Q&A with Hope C. Tarr, Author of Irish Eyes (2023)

Welcome back to the Secret Victorianst for a different sort of blog today—an interview with fellow historical novelist, Hope C. Tarr. You might remember Hope from the virtual panel event I did with Lady Jane’s Salon, the NYC-based romance readers’ club she co-founded, back in 2020. Next month, Hope’s debut historical novel Irish Eyes will be released by Lume Books, and I know readers of the Secret Victorianist are going to love it. Irish Eyes opens on the Aran Islands in 1898 and takes readers on a journey, with its heroine Rose, to the streets of late nineteenth/early twentieth-century New York City. I hope you enjoy my conversation with Hope and enter for a chance to win a copy of her novel below!

SV: How did you first get the idea for your novel, Irish Eyes?

Hope: Irish Eyes is very much a love note to my Irish ancestors, who came to America on the coffin ships at the height of the Great Hunger. For years, I batted around the idea of writing something with an Irish heroine. Finally, on a hiking trip to Western Ireland in (gulp) 2008, I stopped at the famed Cliffs of Moher and gazed across Galway Bay to the trio of islands known as the Arans, and Rose O'Neill’s story began taking shape in my mind. Back in Manhattan, running along the Hudson River, looking out to Ellis Island and Lady Liberty helped further flesh out Rose’s story.

SV: How did the book evolve from your first to your final draft?

Hope: Whoever first said that “writing is in the rewriting” was wise indeed. Irish Eyes changed so many times. Originally, I had a prologue, in fact two prologues, which I really loved. The first prologue began with Rose in 1922 at mass narrating her life story to the parish priest. The second prologue started with Adam, Rose's future love interest, at the Battle of San Juan Heights during the Spanish-American War. I've actually shared that prologue on my History With Hope Substack! To pick up the pacing and start in the thick of the story, both of these very different prologues ended up on the chopping block. A la Stephen King, sometimes you really do have to murder your darlings. 😉

But by far the biggest shift in molding the story was also the scariest. At the onset, I'd written the entire book in my trusty go-to perspective: third-person. But something was missing. The story wasn't... gelling. As a reader, I'd always adored novels written in the first-person—du Maurier’s Rebecca, anyone? —but I'd never had the courage to try first-person POV myself. Once I did and rewrote the entire book in Rose's voice, it all began coming together.

SV: How did writing historical fiction differ from the genres you've written in in the past?

Hope: After wonderful years spent writing 20+ romances for Penguin, Harlequin, and Macmillan, I was ready for a BIG change. Ready to push the boundaries of genre and do a deep dive into history, in this case, mostly early twentieth-century history. Ready to write the sort of big, sweeping historical novel that I'd grown up devouring. Books like Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, technically romance, where you get to spend time with the characters, who evolve over not days/weeks/months but years. In other words, a saga. For a while now, “saga” has been something of a dirty word in American publishing. For that reason, I suspected I was going to have a tough time selling this book, especially as it would be my historical fiction debut, which probably explains why it took me so long to finish it and then shape it into a shoppable manuscript. That being said, if I had to sum up the experience of writing Irish Eyes and bringing it to this point, that word would be “freeing.”

SV: Do you have any tips for writers of historical fiction who are trying to make their books relatable to modern readers without being anachronistic?

Hope: Admittedly, this can be a tough balance to strike, especially when keeping in mind younger readers, who approach fiction with a very different set of expectations than I did at that age. With Irish Eyes, as with any historical fiction, I try to step back and ask myself, “how critical is this point/word/phrase to telling a great story?” If the answer is “not so much,” I may leave it out rather than veer into anachronism. But I also think it's important to understand how we've collectively evolved over the eras. And not evolved. So many of the issues addressed in Irish Eyes—immigration, the roles and rights of women, labor reform, income inequality—are eerily reflective of our present moment. History is cyclical, not linear. It's important to bear in mind that we are making "history" every waking moment.

SV: Your novel, while it's one woman's story, touches on major world and local events, e.g., WWI and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. What was your process like for naturally weaving these references into the novel?

Hope: The biggest challenge in writing Irish Eyes was to decide what historical events not to include. (Back to murdering those darlings!). The book covers 24 years in Rose's life. While the 24/7 news cycle is a recent phenomenon, newspapers were a big, busy feature of turn-of-the-century life. In writing the novel, I put in, and later took out, several events that, while interesting, wouldn't have directly impacted the immigrant community of my fictional heroine and her growing family. For example, the assassination of President McKinley (September 14, 1901) gets a brief mention while the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of March 25, 1911, in Lower Manhattan, gets a half-chapter.

SV: You're a New Yorker yourself. How did this help your process in writing the book?

Hope: Living here as I've been privileged to do, the city's history is all around, waiting to reveal its stories to those open to knowing them. I was here in 2011 for the centennial commemoration of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire at the Brown Building (formerly the Asch Building) where the factory was housed in 1911. The long-anticipated memorial was dedicated in October 2023. The adjacent Washington Square Park began as a potter's field when a series of yellow fever outbreaks starting in 1797 caused the city morgues to overflow. Human remains still rest beneath the elegant fountain and curated plantings. McSorley's Old Alehouse, NYC's oldest continuously operating bar (1854-present), which I recently revisited for another History With Hope episode, serves the same cheddar cheese and onion platters it did back when the great illusionist Houdini stopped in for a post-performance pint.

SV: What historical novels have you read and loved recently?

Hope: I'm very keen on World War II at the moment, likely because I'm working on the sequel to Irish Eyes, set in occupied Paris. I recently finished, and loved, Good Night From Paris, by Jane Healey, a fictional account of the real-life Hollywood screen actress, Drue Leyton, who was living in Paris with her French husband when the Second World War broke out. Rather than return home to the States, Drue accepted a position broadcasting from Paris to the (then neutral) US. Under the Nazi occupation, she repeatedly risked her life working for the Resistance.

SV: What should we look forward to seeing later in the American Songbook Series?

Hope: As I cagily slipped in above, I'm at work on a sequel, Stardust! The second book in my American Songbook series, Stardust follows Rose's granddaughter, Daisy, into the late 1930s and 1940s. Fashioned in the image of her indomitable Irish grandmother, Daisy will take the reins of Rose's Kavanaugh's Department Store when the time comes. In preparation, Rose sends Daisy to Paris to apprentice with the iconic couturier and fragrance entrepreneur, Coco Chanel. In shadowing the mercurial Chanel, Daisy is thrown into the thick of a glittering and treacherous cast of characters—American and British expats, the Parisian haute-monde, war correspondents, and German spies—all of whom congregate at the Hotel Ritz. While she's there, the Nazis invade and occupy Paris. Like the world-famous Chanel No. 5, a blend of 80 secret ingredients, no one in occupied Paris is what they at first seem. 😉

Hope C. Tarr

SV: Thank you so much for speaking with me, Hope, and for giving me the chance to read Irish Eyes ahead of publication. 

Hope: Thank you so much for having me! I hope readers will enjoy Irish Eyes as much as I loved writing it.

Would you like to win a signed paperback copy of Hope C. Tarr’s Irish Eyes, alongside a signed paperback of my own historical novel, Bronte’s Mistress? If so, sign up to my monthly email newsletter here. Anyone who subscribes to the newsletter between 21st November 2023 and 7th December 2023 (the Irish Eyes release day!) will be entered into a random draw to win both books. Already signed up? Spread the word to friends and family who might want to win and stay in touch with me via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Tuesday 31 October 2023

Review: Half-Life of a Stolen Sister, Rachel Cantor (2023)

You might be surprised that my review of Rachel Cantor’s 2023 novel Half-Life of a Stolen Sister, a retelling of the Bronte siblings’ lives, isn’t part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series. After all, those are the blog posts in which I dissect works of fiction written in the twenty-first century but set in the nineteenth. However, Half-Life of a Stolen Sister, while it is a book about the Brontes, isn’t set in the nineteenth century at all. 

Instead, the sisters (originally five in number, but, for much of the novel, three) and their brother, whose names are constantly shifting, live not in Victorian Haworth, but in a city apartment building in a near-contemporary era. They navigate corporate jobs, as well as nannying. They interact with their doorman and, early in the book, with child protective services. 

Confused? You may well be for much of the novel. Every chapter takes a different form—e.g., as a script, a letter, a diary paper. The point of view shifts from sibling to sibling and, at each break in the narrative, we are asked to take a plunge into a different reality. Reader, I loved it.

As someone who immersed herself in the lives and works of the Brontes, as I researched and wrote my 2020 novel, Bronte’s Mistress, rarely have I felt so much that a book was written for me. There’s no spoon-feeding of readers here. This is definitely not the book to pick up if you’re learning about the lives of literature’s most famous family for the first time. But if, like me, you’re a Bronte fanatic, who knows the timeline of the siblings lives like the back of your hand, and who’s very familiar with their works and juvenilia, you’re in for a treat. 

What Cantor does so well is capture the closeness within the family and the imaginative childhood play that the Brontes continued well into adulthood. This is a novel about siblings who are obsessed with words and who use them to construct a sort of folie a quatre. And it’s about the conflict that occurs when those who have grown up in a separate world interact with the “real” world. 

I doubt that Half-Life of a Stolen Sister, despite the Brontes’ continued popularity, will reach a wide readership. But I hope that it reaches and delights the right readership.

Have you read the novel? I’d love to hear what you think! Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Want monthly emails about the Brontes, my writing and more? Sign up to my email newsletter here.

Saturday 7 October 2023

Neo-Victorian Voices: Daughters of Nantucket, Julie Gerstenblatt (2023)

Welcome back to my Neo-Victorian Voices series, where I review books set in the nineteenth century, but written in the twenty-first. For the second time in this series, following my review of Amy Brill’s The Movement of Stars (2013) in 2019, we’re back in nineteenth-century Nantucket. This time I’m reviewing Julie Gerstenblatt’s 2023 Daughters of Nantucket, which follows several women’s lives on the island in the lead up to and aftermath of the Great Fire of 1846.

Eliza is a whaling captain’s wife, who’s struggling financially and emotionally following her husband’s long absence at sea. Maria is an astronomer and curator, who’s hiding her sexuality. And Meg is a pregnant Black businesswoman, who’s still fighting for equality, although she was born free.

Gerstenblatt uses the three women’s different perspectives and experiences to bring the island as it was during this period to life. Only one of them (Maria) shares a name with a true historical figure, although all three were born out of research. The stakes of the interwoven narratives were high and the women’s personalities were distinct enough to maintain reader interest throughout.

What I most enjoyed about the book were the details that were clearly part of Gerstenblatt’s research. I’ve visited the Whaling Museum on the island and so it was great to see the true story of Nantucket’s commercial and social history told there reinvented in fiction. I also enjoyed the structure of the novel, with the countdown to the fire ramping up tension and keeping us guessing about what would happen to our characters. 

What I found less successful was the engagement with social justice themes, especially related to race and sexuality. There is so much rich history in Nantucket about the island’s Black population, but the characters in Daughters of Nantucket at times seemed to speak with twenty-first-century voices, rather than embodying the attitudes of progressive islanders in the 1840s. 

All in, though, Gerstenblatt’s love for Nantucket and its history shines through in this entertaining read. If you want to lie to yourself that it’s still summer, consider picking up a copy and taking an imaginative trip to the beaches of New England. 

What novel would you like me to read next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Want to stay up to date with all my reviews? Make sure you sign up to my monthly email newsletter here.

Sunday 24 September 2023

Writers’ Questions: Should Authors Worry About AI?

Welcome back to my Writers’ Questions series, where I write blog posts answering authors’ and aspiring authors’ top questions related to the craft and business of writing, drawing upon my own personal experience. This week I’m writing about how generative artificial intelligence is changing the industry. Search engine data and IRL conversations I’ve had over the last few months demonstrate that there are lots of questions out there about AI, but, for authors, many of these boil down to just one: “how worried should I be?” My answer (at least for right now!) is, “Don’t sweat it.”

Many fiction writers love to cling to the traditional and familiar. After all, we’ve chosen to write novels in an age dominated by short-form video content. And in the past few years I’ve heard people prophesy the death of the novel due to Amazon, e-books, audiobooks, Netflix, social media, self-publishing and more. Yet, people are still reading, and great books are still getting written. New formats and publishing possibilities have complicated, but not killed, the business, and successful writers have learned to evolve with the times. I believe the advent of accessible generative AI tools will have a similar impact. So here are a few reasons I advise you not to worry.

Bots write in cliches

The AI bots out there currently, like ChatGPT, parrot material they’ve been trained upon. What this means in practice is that they are typing/talking (if not walking) cliches. If you’re using an AI tool to help you plot your novel, I’d almost advise you to write the opposite of what it comes up with. Otherwise, you’re likely to end up with an outline so trope-filled your readers will be rolling their eyes.

AI tools avoid the negative

The makers behind the best generative AI tools out there are sensitive to PR disasters (remember when that bot on Twitter became a Neo-Nazi in under 24 hours?). What this means is that bots are often trained not to give answers that skew towards the dark side. However, pain is at the heart of great fiction. Ever heard that old adage about putting your main character up a tree and then throwing rocks at him? Yeah, an AI bot is less likely to do that and any fiction it produces will be poorer for it.

AI can be your assistant

Even as a fiction writer, there’s a lot of non-fictional material you need to write, e.g., marketing copy, email newsletters, and author biographies of many different lengths. An AI tool could help you speed up some of these tasks, letting you get back to what you’re best at—using your imagination. Just note that if you’re using an AI tool for research, double check anything it tells you, as the bots are known to “hallucinate” (i.e., give you information that isn’t true!).

Your voice is unique

The best novels have voice, meaning they don’t sound like anything that’s been written before. So even if another writer had exactly the same plot idea as you—or someone fed that idea to ChatGPT—the final product would be very different. This is the beauty of writing and so, if anything, I hope the age of AI makes fiction writers step up our game. There are still questions that need to be answered (e.g., how to ensure AI tools don’t plagiarize published authors’ works and that writers are properly compensated if their intellectual property is used in “training”), but right now we have our humanity and our voices on our side. Trust me, this blog post is MUCH more entertaining than the response ChatGPT gave me when I asked it to answer the title question. Why don’t you try it for yourself and see?

Let me know what topic you’d like to see me tackle next as part of my Writers’ Questions series. You can get in touch here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Want regular updates on my writing and me? Sign up for my monthly email newsletter here.

Sunday 3 September 2023

The Top 10 Blog Posts from the Secret Victorianist

I can hardly believe it, but I’ve now been running this blog on nineteenth-century literature and culture for over a decade! The blog has changed a lot over the years as I’ve made the move from London to New York City, my interests have evolved, and I’ve become a published author myself. 

So, in a belated anniversary celebration, I decided to look back through the archives to revisit my top 10 performing posts of all time. 

1. Are YOU an Elizabeth Bennet?

I started my blog with a bang and a LOT of enthusiasm, publishing 13 posts in the first month alone (nowadays my goal of two a month is more achievable). This post, a tongue-in-cheek look at whether I would cut it as an Austen heroine, was one of them. Pride and Prejudice (1813) remains such a cultural touchstone I’m not surprised this article still sees traffic every day—I mean, the 1995 BBC adaptation even got a shout-out in the recent Barbie movie!

2. Tennyson’s ‘To Virgil’: An Exercise in Analyzing Poetry

You’ll see a lot of poetry-focused posts in this top 10 list, which was initially surprising to me. When I write about poetry my promotional posts don’t gain a lot of traction on social media, but when it comes to search engine traffic, those articles rise to the top. My hypothesis is that students are stumbling across my blog when looking for homework help analyzing poems like Tennyson’s ‘To Virgil.’ I can only hope they’re enjoying my write ups, and not just plagiarizing my analysis!

3. Introducing Victorian Poetry to Children

More poetry, but this time with a #KidLit twist. In this blog post I share some more accessible Victorian poems to get children excited about reading verse from the period. 

4. The Best and Worst Tropes in Historical Fiction

This 2018 post is focused on my personal opinions about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to historical fiction tropes (and spoiler alert: I’ve already changed my stance on a few of these issues!). I’d be fascinated in hearing other readers’ views on this topic and what makes a historical novel great to them. 

5. ‘This Genealogical Passion’: Hardy, Incest and Degeneration

The high bounce rates I see from this page suggest that maybe an academic blog on nineteenth-century literature and culture isn’t quite what people are looking for when they Googled “incest” (!), but despite this I selfishly wish more people would read Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved (serialized 1892), one of the strangest Victorian novels out there.

6. Review: Against Nature (À Rebours), Joris-Karl Huysmans (1884)

I’ve written quite a lot about nineteenth-century French literature over the years, but this review of the premier text of the French Decadent movement is far and away the best performing.

7. A Victorian Alphabet: W is for Witchcraft

In 2013-2015 I published a series of posts making a nineteenth-century connection to every single letter of the alphabet (yes, some were easier to think up than others!). While the Victorian period isn’t the one we most associate with witchcraft, this post has been a perennial top performer, especially as we approach Halloween. Here, I focus on the accusations of witchcraft leveled against the character of Eustacia Vye in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native (1878). I also link to my review of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novella, Lois the Witch (1861).

8. A Victorian Alphabet: K is for ‘The Kraken’ (Tennyson, 1830)

More poetry and more Tennyson! In this post I take apart every line of this short and powerful poem about a creature from the deeps. 

9. Misconceptions about Victorian Literature

As a blogger focused on nineteenth-century literature and culture, I often have to contend with people’s preconceptions and misconceptions about what Victorians were like. In this early blog post I tackle the misinformation.

10. A Dickensian Masterclass in Repetition

This is the only writing craft post to make the top 10 and I’m not surprised it’s about lessons we can learn from the master of Victorian literature himself—Charles Dickens. While I do references Dickens’s most famously repetitious passages—the openings of Bleak House (serialized 1852-1853) and A Tale of Two Cities (1859)—it’s his lesser-read 1848 novella The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain that I do a close reading of here.

What would you like to see me write about next as the blog goes into its second decade? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Interested in getting regular updates from my blog and on my fiction? Sign up to my monthly email newsletter here.

Tuesday 8 August 2023

Thomas Hardy’s “How She Went to Ireland”: An Analysis

I’m being a poor Victorianist today and straying outside the nineteenth century to analyze one of Thomas Hardy’s lesser-known poems, “How She Went to Ireland,” which was written in response to the death of writer Dora Sigerson Shorter in 1918. 

While Hardy is now remembered best for his great nineteenth-century novels (think: Tess of the d’Urbevilles (1891) and Jude, the Obscure (1895)), he ended his career as a thoroughly modern poet. His verse often touches on the loss of religious faith as a harbinger to an emotionally challenging new century, while his language has a simplicity which can be hard to reconcile with the wordy descriptions we associate with Victorian prose.

Bringing you another poetry analysis!

“How She Went to Ireland” reads as follows:

Dora’s gone to Ireland

Through the sleet and snow;

Promptly she has gone there

In a ship, although

Why she’s gone to Ireland

Dora does not know.

That was where, yea, Ireland,

Dora wished to be:

When she felt, in lone times,

Shoots of misery,

Often there, in Ireland

Dora wished to be.

Hence she’s gone to Ireland,

Since she meant to go,

Through the drift and darkness

Onward laboring, though

That she’s gone to Ireland

Dora does not know.

One of the first things we notice about the poem is its fairy-tale or fabulistic quality, which is in keeping with Dora Sigerson Shorter’s own writing (she was also a poet and one fascinated by Gaelic myth and culture). Contributing to this are the poem’s frequent repetitions (“Ireland”—four times, “Dora”—five times, “gone”/”go”—six times) and the subtle variation in sentence structure that draws our attention and demands analysis. “Why she’s gone to Ireland/Dora does not know” in the first stanza is replaced by “That she’s gone to Ireland/Dora does not know,” confirming for the reader that Dora is dead, not just confused about the motive for her journey.

Similarly, the Ireland of the first stanza seems like a tangible place, reachable by ship and plagued by realistic weather conditions. But, from the second stanza, the Ireland written about here takes on a mythic quality. Dora, a proud Irish nationalist, “wished to be” in the Ireland that she’s now gone to, meaning the name of the country now seems to refer to an afterlife—albeit one that, in a post-faith world, the dead, like Dora, can have no consciousness of. 

A few other details are worth paying attention to. The phrase “shoots of misery” in the second stanza conjures up the violence of Ireland’s recent past (this poem was written only two years after the 1916 Easter Rising), as well as the imagery of budding plants (“shoots”) and physical sensation (the shooting pain we may feel in our nerves).

Hardy is also pointed in his use of line breaks. The words “though” and “although” are separated from the clauses they are grammatically part of, introducing a pervasive doubt reminiscent of Hardy’s better-known poems, like “The Darkling Thrush” (1900). The sing-song rhyme scheme (ABCBAB) and childlike language of “How She Went to Ireland” may lull us into a false sense that the story we’re being told is simple, but the poem is ultimately unsettling. Death is now merely “drift[ing]” through “darkness,” since we lack the guiding light of religious belief to light our way.  

What to do you make of this short but interesting Hardy poem? I’d love to hear from you. Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Want to get monthly updates from my blog? Sign up to my email newsletter here.

Monday 31 July 2023

The Historical Novel Society North America Conference 2023, San Antonio, Texas—In Quotes (Part Three)

Welcome back, everyone! It took over a month after the close of the Historical Novel Society North America Society conference in San Antonio, Texas, for me to finish listening to all the recordings—a testament to the wealth of great information about historical fiction on offer. I already published Part 1 and Part 2 posts detailing some of my favorite quotes from the event. Today, I’m concluding the series with a third and final roundup.

On the ground at #HNS2023!

Writing craft:

“Don’t die on the hill of being right. If a word sounds modern, even if it isn’t, it ruins the illusion,” Annette Lyon (writer)

“If the structure of your novel is like layers of cake, your characters are the filling and the frosting,” Robin Henry (librarian & book coach)

“Backstory is summary. Flashback is scene,” Sophfronia Scott (writer)

“I always have a big outline that I’m really proud of and I never stick with it,” Elise Hooper (writer)

“Don’t cling to a mistake just because you spent a long time making it,” Patricia Hudson (writer)

“Don’t base your revisions on one person’s point of view. Wait until you hear a couple of people saying the same thing. You’ll see patterns,” Joy Calloway (writer)

Fictionalizing history:

“Never let the truth get in the way of a great story,” Lisa Wingate (writer)

“For me the fiction is what happens around the facts,” Madeline Martin (writer)

“If we can’t entertain, the history part will fall on deaf ears,” Margaret George (writer)

“We are translating past events with the present in mind,” Marianne Monson (writer)

“Look to what’s known and apply it to what isn’t known,” Judith Starkston (writer)


“I am primarily using social media to pull readers off the social media platforms and onto my mailing list, which is the only thing I control,” Laura Morelli (writer)

“There are stores that don’t want to stock books unless they’re big on TikTok, which is alarming,” Crystal King (writer)

“There are zero barriers to entry for podcasting,” Carol Cram (writer)

“Have beta readers for your website, just like you would for your book,” Tema Frank (writer)


“When you want to include historically underrepresented characters in your book, my question is why are they important to your story,” Denny S. Bryce (writer)

“The reason I choose not to write real characters is because I want creative freedom to deviate from what really happened and send them where I want them to go,” Meredith Jaeger (writer)

“What would your character do if they have five minutes left to live?” Alana White (writer)

Religion in fiction:

“If you have very strong orthodox, pure adherence to your own faith, it’s going to be very difficult to write about another faith, especially if you believe that your faith is the only way to get to heaven,” Nicole Evelina (writer)

Did we meet at HNSNA 2023? I’d love to stay in touch! Sign up to my monthly newsletter here. Alternatively, tweet @SVictorianist or contact me via Instagram or Facebook.

Sunday 9 July 2023

Theatre Review: Being Mr. Wickham, 59E59 Theaters, New York City

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Austenites never tire of new takes on Pride and Prejudice (1813), so last month I joined JASNA NY’s outing to 59E59 Theaters to watch a one-man play about one of the novel’s most infamous characters. 

Being Mr. Wickham brings us George Wickham on his sixtieth birthday, still married to Lydia (nee Bennet) and reminiscing about the dramas of his youth. The play was co-written and performed by Adrian Lukis, who was the young Wickham in the beloved 1995 BBC adaptation of Austen’s novel, so it really did feel like we were all watching a familiar character age before our eyes. 

Revisitations of Pride and Prejudice range from the canonical (see, for example, my review of Janice Hadlow’s 2020 The Other Bennet Sister) to the more daring (check out my review of Katherine J. Chen’s 2018 Mary B), and this one-act play was firmly in the former camp. Audience knowledge of the source material was assumed as Lukis regaled us with updates on what has become of the other characters from the book, but there were no shocking revelations about the original story gained from entering the villain’s perspective. 

The set and sound design were smart, keeping the play visually interesting and giving us musical interludes between parts of the play respectively, and this helped keep the crowd engaged throughout—no small feat in what’s essentially a lengthy monologue. Lydia’s off-stage voice and a side plot about a drama Wickham is watching through the window gave the impression of a world beyond the stage, and I appreciated parts of the script that spoke to the wider historical context around Austen’s novel (e.g., war and politics). 

This is linked to what I found most interesting about the play, which was otherwise merely an entertaining trip down memory lane. Lukis and his co-writer Catherine Curzon turn Wickham into the poster child for the Regency period itself—a lover of romance and Romance, who models himself on Byron, and approaches life with a total dedication to having fun. The character’s frustration at the prudishness of the Victorian age he now finds himself living in was well-done and Lukis’s comments during the after-show conversation suggested he found parallels between Wickham’s reaction to a period of increased sincerity and his own responses to society and the direction the arts is taking today.

Have you watched Being Mr. Wickham, whether in New York or elsewhere? I’d love to know what you thought of it! Let me know what plays with a nineteenth-century connection you’d like to read me review next—in the comments, via Instagram, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Want monthly updates about my blog and other writing straight to your email inbox? Sign up for my newsletter here.

Friday 23 June 2023

The Historical Novel Society North America Conference 2023, San Antonio, Texas—In Quotes (Part Two)

Welcome back. Two weeks ago, I attended the Historical Novel Society North America conference in San Antonio, Texas, and shared some of my favorite quotes from the sessions I listened to live at the multi-day event. Today, as promised, I’m back with more words of wisdom from the speakers I caught later via the on-demand recordings. There was so much great content available that I still have a few sessions remaining, so expect a Part Three of this blog in the next few weeks…

On location in San Antonio, TX

AI & Technology:

“ChatGPT is a terrible writer. It’s boring. It will learn and become a better writer, but for now it’s not going to take your writing jobs,” Katie Aiken Ritter (writer)

“We’re not seeing any originality of expression from ChatGPT—things like word choice that writers are known for,” Sarah Johnson (librarian)

“ChatGPT is good at getting rid of ‘BS jobs’,” Jonathan Putnam (writer)

“As storytellers, we’re about to experience a renaissance. Our options for how we carry out our work as storytellers are expanding at a dizzying rate,” Libbie Grant (writer)

Fiction vs. Journalism:

“I wanted the freedom to make things up. Journalism didn’t give that to me. I can always tell when someone is writing fiction who was a journalist,” Weina Dai Randel (writer)

“I found that as a journalist I had to strip myself down and build myself up again. Non-fiction is much denser. Fiction is about character,” Nancy Bilyeau (writer)

“The transition from writing journalism to fiction is a nightmare,” John Jeter (writer)

Specific Periods:

“The Renaissance was the era of unexpected alliances,” Karimi Alavi (writer & educator)

“The big problem with seafaring books is that women didn’t have a significant legitimate role on commercial or naval vessels until the late 20th-century, except as passengers. Romantic heterosexual relationships do not flourish in this genre,” Mary Malloy (writer)

“WWII fiction remains popular as WWII was the last great war that was fought for noble reasons and high stakes,” Maryka Biaggio (writer)

Writing Craft:

“You don’t have much time to convince readers to come on a 400-page journey with you,” Susan Meissner (writer)

“The concept of a story world is very familiar in fantasy and science fiction writing, but historical fiction writers are creating worlds as well—it just happens to be a world based on something that happened in the past. If it’s not a world that exists now, we have to build it,” Mark Baker (writer)

Doing the Work:

“I encourage my students to see writing as a job, whether it’s full-time or part-time,” Joyce Wagner (writer)

“There’s no such thing as writer’s block. If you think there is, go get a job at a newspaper and go tell your editor you’re just not feeling inspired today to write,” Glen Craney (writer)


“A character doesn’t have to be admirable—at the start at least—for us to want to follow them,” James Scott Bell (writer)

“As a writer and a researcher, I want to know more about the women who were at the center of history but are often ignored to the point of becoming non-existent,” DeAnn Smith Stead (writer


“Primary sources help you get, not just to the facts, but to the attitudes,” Addison Armstrong (writer)

“Avoid unforced food history errors in your writing,” Amanda E. Herbert (academic)


“Works are in the public domain if they predate copyright law, if the copyright term has expired, or if they are un-copyrightable. Works published in 1927 came into the public domain in 2023,” Emily Lanza (writer & lawyer)


“It’s not always a conscious choice to write fiction. We’re drawn to it,” Vanitha Sankaran (writer)

Are you also still listening to the great recordings from HNS 2023? I’d love to hear what your favorite sessions were. Let me know—below, by tweeting @SVictorianist, or by contacting me via Instagram or Facebook.

Love all things historical fiction? Sign up to my monthly newsletter here.

Sunday 11 June 2023

The Historical Novel Society North America Conference 2023, San Antonio, Texas—In Quotes (Part One)

I’m currently on my way home from the Historical Novel Society North America’s first in-person conference since 2019, which was held in San Antonio. For several days, IRL and virtual attendees enjoyed an array of talks, panels, and masterclasses from authors, agents, and editors in the historical fiction world. Those of us in Texas also enjoyed socializing and signing books at the readers’ festival, which was open to the public. 

In today’s post I’ll be sharing some of the most memorable quotes from the presenters I heard in action, organized by theme. Stay tuned for a Part Two post once I catch up on other recorded sessions virtually!

Reporting live (almost) from HNS 2023!

Writing Craft:

“Write like you’re in love. Edit like you’re in charge,” James Scott Bell (writer)

“There is nothing worse than a confused reader,” Denny S. Bryce (writer)

“Your point of view character should be determined by the climax of your book,” Kimberly Brock (writer)

“Prologues exist because readers are impatient,” Mitchell Waters (agent)

Publishing Industry:

“Stories aren’t complete until we share them,” Lisa Wingate (writer)

“Readers, not publishers, are the ones who determine which books deserve to be read,” Libbie Grant (writer)

“There are fewer and fewer people working on more and more books,” Marcy Posner (agent)

“Especially on kidlit, what I’m hearing is that editors want books about LGBT characters that aren’t about trauma but are about joy,” Shannon Hassan (agent)

Our Genre:

“History tells you what happened. Historical fiction tells you how it felt,” Jamie Ford (writer)

What to Write:

“American readers want to read about the topics most pertinent to them,” Weina Dai Randel (writer)

“I’m fascinated by the staff’s point of views, especially overlooked women,” Mariah Fredericks (writer)

Sex Scenes:

“Sex can reflect agency or loss of agency,” Laurie Lico Albanese (writer)

“Many book club readers skip the sex scenes. Proceed with caution,” Heather Webb (writer)


“We are always writing retellings. When we write new takes on classic tales the source is just more obvious,” Kris Waldherr (writer)

“For me, retellings are always about exploring different perspectives on a story,” Molly Greeley (writer)


“Witches are a powerful symbol for marginalized people,” Paulette Kennedy (writer)

“We are righting a wrong and reclaiming the title of witch,” Alyssa Palombo (writer)

The Arts in Fiction:

“As writers we know what it feels like to create, so we can transpose these emotions onto other arts,” Carol Cram (writer)


“It helps me to walk the walk and take photos of places my characters would have been,” Nancy Bilyeau (writer)


“TikTok is a hot mess. No one knows what will go viral. What works on Instagram doesn’t necessarily work there but I post it on TikTok anyway for the content,” Vanessa Riley (writer)

If you were at HNS 2023 I’d love to hear what quotes and advice stood out to you from the conference—let me know below, by tweeting @SVictorianist, or by contacting me via Instagram or Facebook. Reading this later and on the fence about joining us for HNS 2025 in Las Vegas? I, for one, would love to see you there.

Love all things historical fiction? Sign up to my monthly newsletter here.

Monday 15 May 2023

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2022)

Historical fiction meets science fiction in the latest book I’m writing about as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series, on novels written in the twenty-first century but set in the nineteenth. Moreno-Garcia’s The Daughter of Doctor Moreau (2022) is inspired by H.G. Wells’s classic tale of man playing God—The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896).

Readers of the original novel will recognize some common elements—the mad vivisectionist Dr. Moreau, his alcoholic assistant Montgomery, and a host of Beast Folk (here, “hybrids”), the result of the scientist’s experiments. But there are significant departures too. While The Island of Doctor Moreau is set in the South Pacific, the action of The Daughter of Doctor Moreau takes place in a remote part of the Yucatán peninsula in nineteenth-century Mexico. And while our characters are isolated, they are not on an island—a backdrop of real political strife ups the stakes as the novel comes to its dramatic conclusion. Then too, there’s the daughter of the title. Carlota Moreau (the doctor’s illegitimate child) is one of our two point of view characters, along with Montgomery. There’s no straight man, like Edward Prendick, to mirror reader responses to the story—all the characters are implicated in the ethical questions at the novel’s heart, some in ways they don’t initially realize.

There’s lots to love here—a well-paced Gothic tale, a classic Victorian story in an unusual setting, and feminist commentary layered over the moral questions that Wells’s classic raises. I would have enjoyed a few more concrete descriptions of the hybrids, especially given the medical training Carlota receives from her father, to keep the novel more clearly in the realm of scientific speculation, rather than sheer fantasy. Another line Moreno-Garcia walks is in her depiction of the relationship between Montgomery and Carlota. While their age gap isn’t unusual for the period, she seems aware that modern readers may take issue with Montgomery’s attraction to a girl he first met as a child. As a result, the conclusion to the story between them seems a little non-committal, in a way that, for me, made the ending less satisfying. 

Did you read The Daughter of Doctor Moreau? I’d love to know what you thought of it. And do let me know which novel you’d like to see me review next as part of the Neo-Victorian Voices series—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Want monthly updates about this blog and my writing straight to your email inbox? Sign up for my mailing list here

Wednesday 3 May 2023

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Parting Glass, Gina Marie Guadagnino (2019)

Gina Marie Guadagnino’s 2019 The Parting Glass has many of the elements I love to see in books I review for my Neo-Victorian Voices series, on novels written in the twenty-first century but set in the nineteenth. Not only does the story take place in the 1830s, but the location is New York City, our heroine is Irish, and the subject matter is forbidden love (including several lesbian romances). 

Mary Ballard is lady’s maid to society beauty Charlotte Wharton, whom she’s secretly and passionately in love with. But she’s already lost one life for having a sexual relationship with a woman and, what’s more, Charlotte is having sex with Mary’s twin brother Johnny, even though she’s meant to remain a virgin until marriage.

Guadagnino does a great job painting a picture of the upstairs/downstairs world of the Wharton household, and also the very different world Mary and Johnny inhabit on their nights off, drinking at an Irish bar with publican Dermot, who knows their past and their real names. Another bright spot is the character of Liddie, a half-Black sex worker Mary meets and develops a relationship with over the course of the novel. 

There’s plenty of action, the stakes are high, and the novel reaches a dramatic climax, which delivers on the marketing promise that, in The Parting Glass, “Downton Abbey meets Gangs of New York.” 

What was less clear to me was whether Mary is a character we’re supposed to relate to and sympathize with. Her sexual obsession with Charlotte, while realistic, has incestuous overtones, which some readers may find off-putting. I actually wish Guadagnino had leaned into this even more at the start of the novel, but given Mary a character arc, as she came to a new, mature understanding of romantic love thanks to her reciprocal relationship with Liddie. Instead (slight spoiler here!), I left the novel feeling that Mary had treated Liddie pretty poorly and disappointed that she was still putting Charlotte and her style of upper-class, White beauty on a pedestal. 

Have you read The Parting Glass? I’d love to hear what you thought of the novel. Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Thursday 20 April 2023

Film Review: The Wonder (2022)

Back in 2018, I reviewed Emma Donoghue’s 2016 nineteenth-century-Ireland-set novel, The Wonder, for this blog—check out my full review here. Today, five years on, I’m back with a post about the book’s film adaptation.

The Wonder (2022) is remarkably true to Donoghue’s novel and doesn’t resort to Hollywood theatrics to enhance the story. It stars Florence Pugh as the English nurse, Lib, and she’s the ideal actor to pull off the role. Despite the slight plot and limited setting, Pugh’s facial expressions alone are enough to keep our interest for nearly two hours. The filmmakers also do a great job conveying the moody atmosphere, which makes the genre of the movie initially difficult to pin down. Are we in a horror film or is this psychological horror? movie watchers might ask themselves in the first thirty minutes.

One result of the faithful adaptation is that my original criticisms of the novel still hold. The romantic subplot is underdeveloped, and Lib never sways in her rational beliefs, although I would have loved to see Pugh grappling with whether to accept a supernatural explanation for her patient’s lack of appetite. The movie also introduces a new problem—a slightly bizarre and meta frame story, that reminds us that we are watching actors, not real people. This was a strange choice, but these short opening and closing minutes do little to detract from what is an entertaining watch.

Overall, I’d recommend The Wonder to fans of costume dramas and Pugh, and anyone with an interest in nineteenth-century Ireland. I loved how the film emphasized the trauma of the Great Famine, placing a disturbing story about one child who refuses to eat in a wider cultural and historical context. Writers may also wish to compare the novel to the screenplay to understand how small changes can play to different media.

What nineteenth-century film would you like the Secret Victorianist to review next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist

Saturday 8 April 2023

Writers’ Questions: What are some writing websites I should know about?

In my Writers’ Questions series, I’ve been sharing advice about the writing and publication process for the past four years. In today’s blog post I’ll be sharing more free writing resources—five great websites that should already be on your radar…

Chill Subs: Submitting short stories or poems to literary journals? Entering writing contests? Applying to residencies? You need to check out Not only is the browsing interface free and easy to use, but you can also track your submissions and show off your publications.

Answer the Public: Do you run a blog or write journalistic articles? Make sure you’re answering the questions real people have about your topic of choice by using my favorite tool for search engine optimization— Warning: you only have a limited number of free searches each month, so use them wisely.

Hemingway App: Working on improving your “window-pane” prose? You’ll soon be eschewing adverbs and banning passive voice with Just copy/paste sections of your work in progress into the tool—no download required. 

Shepherd: So, you’re active on Goodreads and BookBub, but what about  I love how readers can browse by topic and how authors are encouraged to promote their own books, by giving love to thematically similar reads. Check out my own article here.

Reddit: Are you writing about a part of being human you haven’t had direct experience with? e.g., having long hair, being passionate about knitting, or dealing with a toxic mother-in-law? Whatever experience you’re writing about, there’s probably a subreddit for that (trust me, r/JustNoMIL was a vital part of my research for Bronte’s Mistress), so check out, even if you’re not usually a social media fan.

Fellow writers, I’d love to know what other website are a vital part of your writing and publishing process. Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday 18 March 2023

Film Review: Emily (2022)

As the author of a novel inspired by the scandalous lives of the Bronte siblings (Bronte’s Mistress), I’ve fielded a lot of questions recently about Emily, the 2022 biopic about the most mysterious Bronte sister, which only came to theaters in the US last month. Have I seen it? Do I like it? Is it accurate??

In this blog post I’m finally breaking down my response to the movie into two sections—highlights and lowlights. I’d absolutely love to hear your opinions too!


Location/Setting: The movie was shot on location, largely in the Brontes’ hometown of Haworth. It was a thrill for me to see the Bronte siblings on film in the parsonage, where they lived, and on the moors where they would have roamed. Emily is beautifully filmed, and the movie would be worth watching for the Yorkshire landscape alone.

Acting: The actors, especially Emma Mackey who played the title role, were stellar (although clearly cast for their talent rather than for any family resemblance between the siblings!).

Boosting Bronte-Mania: Critics and audiences alike seem to have really enjoyed the film, which is great news for Bronte fans (and Bronte-related authors like me). I hope it encourages even more readers to pick up Wuthering Heights and the other Bronte novels.


Romance: I was saddened, although not surprised, that much of the movie was given over to a fictional romance between Emily Bronte and the curate, William Weightman. I understand the film industry’s desire to add bodice ripping to every period drama. However, there was enough scandal in the Brontes’ lives without making more up and I felt the romantic focus took away from who I believe Emily Bronte really was—reclusive, introverted, and not writing from personal experience when she penned the violent passion of Wuthering Heights.

Publication History: The end of the movie was truly horrifying to me, and not because of the Bronte siblings’ speedy deaths. The screenwriters took a huge liberty in changing the publication history of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and suggesting that Charlotte only penned her famous novel in response to Emily’s success.

Charlotte and Anne: Speaking of which, both Charlotte and Anne came out of the Emily biopic particularly badly. While Charlotte’s genius was chalked up to mere sibling rivalry, Anne’s writing aspirations were barely mentioned. I appreciate that this was a movie about Emily, but do we really need to keep putting Bronte sisters down to raise others up?

Sibling Relationships: Branwell, the Bronte brother, also gets a lot of screen time. What was most puzzling to me here was that the movie suggested there was most sympathy and kinship between him and Emily, presenting them as the “fun” ones, compared to an uptight Charlotte and generally useless Anne. In fact, Branwell and Charlotte were incredibly close, as were Emily and Anne—that’s why these were the pairings in which they wrote their juvenilia. There were some early references to the siblings’ childhood make-believe worlds, but this aspect of their relationships was severely underdeveloped in favor of making Emily and Branwell our bad girl/boy rebels.

Lydia Robinson: Finally, as the author of a novel all about Branwell’s affair with Lydia Robinson, his employer’s wife, I was of course intrigued to see how the movie would cover this episode. Sadly, nothing that happened at Thorp Green Hall, or the impact this had on the Bronte family, made it into the movie. Instead, there was just a brief and confusing scene featuring Branwell flirting with a married woman closer to home. Hollywood scouts, if you’re reading this, there was a real Bronte love affair, and one with the scope for multiple sex scenes—you just need to read Bronte’s Mistress. ;)

So, there you have it—this has been my take on Emily. The film is beautiful and well-acted and few of my gripes will matter if you don’t know much about the Brontes. But if you do, you might find yourself screaming at the screen like me… 

Bronte fans, do you agree or disagree? I’d love for you to let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday 25 February 2023

Neo-Victorian Voices: Booth, Karen Joy Fowler (2022)

I imagine that many American readers will come to Karen Joy Fowler’s 2022 novel, Booth, with preconceptions about John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865), the man who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). However, having grown up outside the US, my knowledge of the killer and the theatrical family he was part of was essentially nonexistent before I sat down to read this latest book in my Neo-Victorian Voices series, about novels set in the nineteenth century but penned in the twenty-first.

Booth is one of those novels where we know what the climax will be—Lincoln will die. Suspense comes instead from anticipating the emotional and practical responses of the rest of the Booth family to John’s actions. We move between three of his nine siblings’ points of view in the novel, jumping from the mind of invalid and put-upon Rosalie to famous actor Edwin to beautiful and fiery Asia. This isn’t a book about a murderer—it’s a book about how a murderer’s actions affect those who love him most, so I was unsurprised to read in Fowler’s author’s note that she was partially inspired to write the book by considering the position of modern mass shooters’ families. 

The real-life Booths are wonderful fodder for a novel. In addition to John’s assassination of Lincoln, parental bigamy, alcoholism, daring and dangerous journeys across the United States, theatrical productions galore, and a stock of other juicy rumors were all at Fowler’s disposal when she sat down to write this book. If she’d made all this up some reviewers would have called Fowler’s novel farfetched but all the craziest details about the Booths are true, meaning, especially later in the book, there is, at times, too much incident. I would have liked some breathing room to give the characters even more page space to react and reflect.

Lovers of Shakespeare will enjoy how much Fowler makes of the importance of the bard to the Booth family culture and may also be intrigued by the altered versions of his famous plays most performed during the nineteenth-century. I also liked learning about other popular plays from the time period, and the history of costuming (the fact that actors owned their own expensive costumes for different roles was fascinating!). 

Coming back to the preconceived ideas readers may have about the Booths, Fowler handles the topic of slavery very deftly. Without lecturing, the novel explores how and why the siblings ended up with opposing ideas about abolition, and the divisions created by birth order, age gaps, and very different childhood experiences in a large family rang particularly true. This is the story of the Booth siblings, but secondary characters, including the family’s Black servants who are trying to buy the freedom of their children still trapped in slavery, give us an even broader perspective on the macro-forces at work in the country during this era. 

What novel would you like to see my review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Like what you read? Sign up to my email newsletter for monthly updates on my writing and blogging.