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. 

Saturday, 18 February 2023

Emily Bronte’s Love and Friendship: An Analysis

Emily Bronte is the Bronte sibling who’s top of mind for many of us right now, with the release of the biopic Emily (which I’m hoping to see this long weekend!). So, in honor of the most mysterious Bronte sister I thought I’d spend some time on an exercise I haven’t done in a long time on my blog—a close reading of a poem. 

I’ve previously shared analyses of other Victorian poems, including Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells,” Algernon Charles Swinburne’s “Anactoria,” and Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Kraken” and “To Virgil.” Today it’s the turn of Emily Bronte’s “Love and Friendship”.

Here’s the poem…

Love and Friendship

Love is like the wild rose-briar,

Friendship like the holly-tree—

The holly is dark when the rose-briar blooms

But which will bloom most constantly?

The wild rose-briar is sweet in spring,

Its summer blossoms scent the air;

Yet wait till winter comes again

And who will call the wild-briar fair?

Then scorn the silly rose-wreath now

And deck thee with the holly’s sheen,

That when December blights thy brow

He still may leave thy garland green.

Let’s start by paraphrasing the poem in prose to make sure we all understand what Emily Bronte is telling us here. 

In the first stanza, Bronte compares romantic love to one plant (“the wild rose-briar”) and platonic friendship to another (“the holly-tree”). Then she poses a question about which “will bloom most constantly,” i.e., be a more consistent source of joy.

In the second stanza she answers her own question, telling us love, unlike friendship, will be short-lived, just as the rose-briar is stripped of its beauty in winter.

Based on this conclusion, in the third stanza she offers some advice: the reader should reject romantic love in the present and invest in their friendships so that in the future (when we’re old) these platonic relationships will bring us happiness. 

So that’s what Emily Bronte is saying, but let’s discuss some of the notable things about how she expresses this idea in her poem.

First, I want to draw your attention to Bronte’s use of rhyme. In the first stanza, “tree” and “constantly” rhyme, but “briar” and “blooms” definitely do not, giving us a ABCB rhyme scheme. In the second stanza, again lines 2 and 4 (“air” and “fair”) are a perfect rhyme, while lines 1 and 3 (“spring” and “again”) inch closer to rhyming. Finally, in the third stanza, we get a true ABAB scheme with two pairs of perfect rhymes (“now” with “brow” and “sheen” with “green”). What is the effect of this? The paired rhymes in the last stanza add to the feeling of finality in Emily Bronte’s poem and bring the piece to a more satisfying end. And the progression towards this rhyme scheme we see in the first two stanzas is similar to that of rhetorician building a persuasive argument.

The next detail that’s worth diving into is Bronte’s choice of which plants should represent each subject. Using the rose to depict romantic love is so classic as to border on cliché, but here the decision to make this a “wild rose-briar” adds interest. The choice suggests natural and unbridled passion, reminiscent of the tumultuous love between Cathy and Heathcliff in Bronte’s only novel, Wuthering Heights (1847). Meanwhile, the holly-tree is a plant with a strong association with one time of year—Christmas. This suits Bronte well as her lesson is that we should garland ourselves with friendship now, even though we mightn’t understand its full rewards until later (i.e., at the end of the year/our lives). 

Bronte’s message may seem to be a total rejection of romance (after all, she does tell us to “scorn” it), but it is also worth noting that she doesn’t tell us to remove the “silly rose-wreath” from our heads and imagines this crown remaining there, if blighted, on our brow come winter. Maybe then we should read the verse as encouraging us not to take our romantic entanglements too seriously and certainly not to neglect our friendships in favor of them?

One last detail I’d love to point out is the use of alliteration throughout to make the poem pleasing to the ear (“wait,” “winter,” “will,” and “wild-briar” all appear close together, as do “scorn” and “silly,” “blights” and “brow,” and “garland” and “green”). This is a technique that fiction writers can also use in our writing whenever we want to make our prose sing.

Have you seen the new Emily movie yet? I’d love to hear what you think! Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Tuesday, 31 January 2023

Writers’ Questions: Why, oh why, is writing so hard?

I’ve been publishing blog posts as part of my Writers’ Questions series since 2019, covering a range of topics related to craft and the business of writing. But many of my most-asked questions really boil down to one that’s psychological, rather than artistic or technical, in nature: why is this writing thing so damn hard?!

Feeling down? Digest these tips and eat some ice cream...

First, I feel you—being a writer isn’t easy. Second, if you’re currently struggling with the emotional toll of writing, this blog post might help by digging into some of the potential reasons why…

You're realizing writing isn't for everyone. Literacy rates are very high in the countries where I and most of this blog’s readers live. That means that almost everyone can write and does write (emails, texts, ranting comments on the internet etc.) all the time. But don’t confuse that with thinking that everyone can write well. One thing that’s hard about pursuing this as a career path, or even a hobby, is that it’s very easy to start writing (unlike say, picking up a violin and starting to play), but, at some point, you’re going to hit an issue and understand your lack of experience. If this is where you’re at now, don’t fear! Recognizing where your writing could be better is vital for improving your craft, and thinking your prose is perfect as a beginner is a recipe for disappointment.

You’re not looking after your physical needs. There may be a certain appeal to the trope of the starving artist, but, if you’re tired, hungry, cold etc., trust me—you’re not going to be producing your best material. Get better at diagnosing what’s actually wrong when you’re feeling low and understanding what your mind and body needs and wants. It’s not virtuous to push yourself to breaking point. Great writing might be about suffering but should never require it.

You like the idea of writing. I hate to break it to you, but writers love the act of writing, not just having written. When you’re at your best (i.e., not tired, hungry etc. as I list above), can an hour slip away from you, unnoticed, as you type at your keyboard or scrawl in a notebook? If not, why on earth are you doing this to yourself? If you want someone to listen to you, consider therapy and/or get better friends. And if you want fame, fortune, and praise, there are much easier paths to take.

You’re playing an imitation game. Maybe you’re dissatisfied with your writing because you’re copying your literary heroes, rather than developing your own style. If you’re doing this, it’s unsurprising that you’ll always be underwhelmed by the result. Stop trying to be Tolkien. You’re never going to be Tolkien. 

You’re writing the “wrong” thing. Or maybe it’s the type of writing you’re doing that’s the problem? You could be better suited to working in a format other than a novel e.g., penning a play, poem, screenplay, or short story. Perhaps secretly your heart is with another genre and you’re forcing yourself to write what you think you should be writing (e.g., following the market or writing literary fiction when you prefer to write genre). When in doubt, try mixing it up, and see if things get any easier.

Your inner critic is being too harsh. Self-editing is part of a writer’s job, but too much self-critique can be paralyzing. If you struggle with this, then try to operate in different modes (writer mode vs. editor mode). Then assign these versions of yourself to different shifts. When your inner editor is away, let your inner writer play and enjoy.

You're struggling with feelings of rejection. Lastly, maybe you’re unhappy right now because you’ve faced a spate of writerly rejection. “No” is a word we hear A LOT in this business. This is emotionally difficult—there are no two ways about it. And you’re allowed to wallow for a few minutes when you receive bad news. But don’t let rejection cramp your style or stop you writing. Instead, I recommend distracting yourself, while waiting for news or after receiving bad news. Start a new project. Indulge in some guilty pleasure writing that reminds you why you wanted to be a writer in the first place. No agent, editor, judge etc. can ever take that restoring feeling of the joy of creation away from you. 

What question would you like to see me tackle next as part of my Writers’ Questions series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Wednesday, 25 January 2023

Writers’ Questions: How shouldn’t I begin my novel?

Happy January, everyone! Many of you might have made writing a novel (or another novel) one of your New Year’s resolutions for 2023, so, in this latest post in my Writers’ Questions series, I’m covering what not to do at the opening of your book. I’ve already talked about the top mistakes beginner writers make when embarking on a fiction project. This time the focus is on what not to do in those crucial first few pages.

Of course, there are some caveats here. You may be able to think of wonderful novels that start in the ways I critique below (although I bet most of your examples are from before the year 2000…). And you might, of course, be a writerly genius who can pull any opening off. If so, good for you! But if your new novel starts in any of the following ways, it might just be worth rethinking your beginning…

Dreams: Readers are trying to orient themselves when they first pick up a new novel. Throwing them into a new world and then revealing it was all a dream is a sure-fire way to confuse them. Plus, dreams are boring unless you care deeply about the person dreaming. Have your eyes ever glazed over while an acquaintance tells you about their dream in real life? Don’t subject your readers to the literary equivalent, asking them to care about the sub-conscious mumblings of a character they haven’t even met yet. 

Waking Up Generally: The only thing duller than a character waking up from a dream is a character waking up from no dream and pursuing their morning routine of eating their cereal and brushing their teeth. Spare us the mundanity and get into why your story is interesting, I beg you.

A History/Science/Folklore etc. Lesson: Readers read books for entertainment. A novel shouldn’t begin like a textbook. There’ll be time enough later for your world building, e.g., explaining what fuels the spaceship or how your novel’s magic system works. For now, get into the action.

Too Much Action: However, don’t give us too much action. A James Bond style car chase works well at the start of a movie—on page one of a novel though, not so much. Action is hard to write, even after you’ve established characters, setting, and stakes. Beginning mid-battle or fist fight, it will be difficult for readers to understand what is going on or why they should care.

Unattributed Dialogue: One arresting line of dialogue might be a good opening sentence, but please establish who’s talking ASAP or readers won’t have a clue what’s going on. If your novel starts with back-and-forth conversation between two unnamed and un-described characters, you’re not doing yourself or your readers any favors.

Do you agree or passionately disagree that these are among the worst ways a writer can start a novel? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist