Saturday, 8 May 2021

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd (2014)

In my Neo-Victorian Voices series, I review novels set in the nineteenth-century, but written in the twenty-first. This week, it’s the turn of Sue Monk Kidd’s 2014 novel, The Invention of Wings.

The book tells the story of Sarah Grimké, based on a real abolitionist from Charleston, and Handful, a fictional character born into slavery in the Grimkés’ household. On her eleventh birthday, Sarah’s parents “gift” her the ten-year-old Handful. Already disgusted by slavery, Sarah tries to reject her “present”, marking the start of a long and complex relationship between the enslaved Handful and her reluctant “mistress”.

Handful is a compelling character and her relationship with her mother, Charlotte, was my favourite part of the novel. Charlotte, a skilled seamstress, creates story quilts telling the history of her life and those of her African ancestors and repeats fables to Handful passed down by her own mother—among them the idea that they once had wings. Handful, despite her captivity and the horrific experiences she goes through, is active in her own story. She’s more decisive than Sarah and I found myself looking forward to returning to her point of view.

Sarah, as a child, is a driven character too, longing to become a lawyer and certain in her opinions. But she spends much of the novel knocked back and unsure how to act. For me, her eventual triumph, as she and her sister tour the North lecturing in support of abolition, was a little rushed. I would have liked to see more of her coming into her own. I also wondered about her struggles with her cultural inheritance. While I know there were those born into white, slave owning families, who abhorred the “institution”, it was harder to believe that Sarah wouldn’t have internalised any of the racism around her.

Kidd’s prose is beautiful and her research shines in all the best ways as she tackles a terrible period of American history. As a writer of historical fiction, I particularly enjoyed her author’s note detailing the decisions she made and the true stories that inspired her creation of Handful. 

Overall, as with other novels about American slavery I’ve read, like Valerie Martin’s wonderful Property (2003) and Dolen Perkins-Valdez's heartbreaking Wench (2010), The Invention of Wings at times makes for painful reading, but I think fiction like this still plays a powerful role in bringing a human voice to the facts we read about in history books.

Which novel would you like to see me review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Instagram, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Have you read my novel, Bronte’s Mistress, yet? It’s available in hardcover, e-book, and audiobook now, and the paperback will be published next month! For monthly updates on my writing and blog, sign up for my email newsletter below.

Get updates on my novel - Bronte's Mistress

* indicates required


Sunday, 25 April 2021

Writers’ Questions: How should I edit my novel?

Ever since the sale of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, I’ve been answering questions about the writing and publication process on my blog. Today, I’m tackling the all-important topic of revision. 

This was a tricky one to write, as, unlike some authors who have a structured editing process (e.g. doing different edits for character, plot, sentence-level etc.), I a) revise a lot as I go, and b) make all of these changes at once. Rather than a step-by-step guide then, think of this blog post as a list of things to watch out for, no matter when and how you choose to do your edits. 

A final disclaimer is that I am a traditionally published writer. This article is assuming that you’re writing a book to submit to literary agents, rather than preparing to self-publish a manuscript. These tips are not designed to replace the need for a professional edit and copy-edit. 

So, let’s get into it. In no particular order, here are just some of the things to watch out for when you’re reading your novel with fresh eyes.

Inconsistent details

Does your character have blue eyes in Chapter Four, but brown eyes by Chapter Seven? Is the sunset visible from the same window where your cast watched the sunrise just hours before? Sure, maybe only a few readers will pick up on these errors, but for those who do, this kind of sloppiness will negatively impact their immersion in your world. You know your book better than anyone (after all, you wrote it!), so get the details right. 

Confused time/date/weather markers

I understand: things change as you write a novel, and sometimes the markers in your prose of how time is passing suffer as a result. Read your manuscript through this lens to see if you’re giving your readers enough info to understand where they are in time…and not inadvertently turning back the clocks or creating a crazy climate.

Point of view violations

I’ve written a whole blog post in this series on what point of view is and how important getting it right is to the success of a novel. In short, readers need to understand whose viewpoint we’re experiencing your story from, or, to borrow an analogy from filmmaking, where the camera is placed. Look for moments big and small where you’ve included information your point of view character couldn’t possibly know and cull them mercilessly. While you’re at it, also check you’re not employing filter words and distancing us from your chosen perspective.

Repeated words

Every writer has favourite words, but each time you inadvertently repeat one, it loses its power. Be aware of your writing habits and switch up your vocabulary where you can. Listening to your novel via text-to-speech applications can be particularly helpful here. That said, there is also a time and place for repetition. Check our this post I wrote eight years ago on how Charles Dickens employs repetition to great effect in one of his short stories.

Adverbs

This is another topic I’ve written about before, so you can read a full explanation here. TL/DR: adverbs are often a symptom of too much telling and not enough showing.

Telling

This leads us to telling in its many other forms. The most egregious to my mind is naming emotions to explain to readers how your character is feeling. Can you show us instead, through actions, body language, and dialogue? I’ve previously shared more thoughts on showing vs. telling here.

Lack of rhythmic variety

Having too many sentences in a row with the same number of words, words of the same number of syllables, repeated words beginning or ending the sentence, or identical sentence structures is the quickest way to put your readers to sleep, regardless of your book’s content. This is another area where listening to your work when editing is a godsend. Mix it up! 

Excessive use of passive voice

Like rhythmic monotony, constant use of the passive vs. active voice acts as a soporific, while also robbing your characters of agency. I’ve written a detailed blog post if you want to get better at spotting and eradicating unnecessary passive (hot tip: if you can add “by zombies” to a clause, you’re using passive!).

Anachronism

As a historical novelist, I have to be eagle-eyed to ensure I’m not ruining the illusion of transporting my readers to the past. Part of this for me is spending a lot of time while editing looking at etymology and date of first usage for words to maintain historical accuracy even at a sentence level.

Incorrect formatting

There’s a standard way to format a novel manuscript and its constituent parts (e.g. dialogue). Learn the best practices and employ them in your edit, even if your first draft was written by hand or in a non-standard format that works for you.

Spelling and grammar errors

Oh yes, and you have to have perfect spelling and grammar too! Don’t just think “the copyeditor will fix this later.” It’s on you to make your novel as great as you can—alone.


So, there you have it—an incomplete list of ways to get started if you’re tackling an edit! It’s a lot of hard work, but just know that with every change you execute, you’re making your book more powerful.

What topic would you like to see me write about next as part of my Writers’ Questions series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. My novel Bronte’s Mistress is available for order now, and for monthly updates from me delivered direct to your inbox, sign up for my email newsletter below.

Get updates on my novel - Bronte's Mistress

* indicates required


Sunday, 18 April 2021

Neo-Victorian Voices: Deception by Gaslight, Kate Belli (2020)

Kate Belli takes us back to 1880s New York in the first instalment of her Gilded Gotham mystery series. Reporter Genevieve Stewart, a jilted bride born into an eccentric family in Mrs Astor’s 400, is on the hunt for “Robin Hood”, a jewel thief targeting the rich, but burglary isn’t the only crime afoot. Genevieve joins forces with Daniel McCaffrey, a wealthy and handsome man with a shrouded past (and questionable taste in waistcoats), but can she trust him? And how many people will die before she uncovers the truth?

I very much enjoyed the New York setting of this well-paced mystery, from the lavish parties of the upper crust to the dirty allies of the Five Points neighbourhood. I also appreciated that the investigation moves forward without tedious interrogations and our “detectives” asking the same questions again and again (my issue with many procedurals).

Genevieve is a capable and likeable character. She’s in her mid-twenties, independent, and proactive. She also has two living parents, brothers, and supportive friendships—a rarity among protagonists! There are moments of damsel-in-distress drama, but Genevieve is largely able to save herself. The romance is well drawn and doesn’t overwhelm the story, which remains focused on unmasking the bad actors at work in the city’s ballrooms, backstreets and institutions. 

All in, this is a fun read. Don’t expect a gritty, realistic look at life in gilded age New York—this isn’t what this novel offers. But if you love whodunnits, lively plots, and great costume parties, consider adding Deception by Gaslight to your summer reading list.

Which twenty-first-century-published, nineteenth-century-set 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.

Don’t forget that my novel, Bronte’s Mistress, is out now! And for monthly updates on my blog posts and writing, sign up for my email newsletter below. 

Get updates on my novel - Bronte's Mistress

* indicates required


Monday, 12 April 2021

Neo-Victorian Voices: Melnitz, Charles Lewinsky (2006), trans. Shaun Whiteside (2015)

I’m cheating a little with this one. My Neo-Victorian Voices series typically covers books written in the twenty-first century, and set in the nineteenth. Charles Lewisnky’s Melnitz, first published in German in 2006, starts in the 1870s, but covers the fortunes of the Swiss Jewish Meijer family until the Second World War. Still, I couldn’t not tell you about this wonderful novel!

I love a good multigenerational family saga (Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s The Mountains Sing (2020) and Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (2017) were recent favourites). But it can be hard to connect with so many characters across multiple generations. Lewinsky does a great job of characterising his cast with a few deft brushstrokes, painting them as individuals forced to make painfully human choices amidst shifting political tides and the ever-lurking threat of anti-Semitism. 

To read this novel is to live with the burden of history. We know what will happen next as the Meijers cannot. Where to live? Under which nationality? And with whom? These are life or death decisions. The drama of Melnitz isn’t comprised of twists we don’t see coming. As readers, we’re watching a train thundering towards the family, and unable to tell them to get off the tracks. 

I loved the broad definition of family the novel embraces. Not all of the characters are linked by blood or marriage, or even religion—the Christian baptism of one character is a momentous event in the course of the novel. But a shared cultural inheritance, stories, and memories, as well as the experience of being othered within Switzerland and beyond, bind those we follow together. 

Some of the standout moments for me included the depiction of Arthur’s sexuality, the evolution of the relationship between stepsisters Chanele and Mimi, and the sort-of friendship between Hillel and his Frontist classmate at the agricultural college. 

Coming to this novel, I knew little about the lives of Jewish people in Switzerland in the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, depictions of the country in the WWII period often focus on Switzerland as a dream destination, the symbol of freedom and safety, appearing through the Alps. I’m so happy I read this book and will be recommending it to anyone who’ll listen. If you enjoy novels filled with humour and pathos, which bring to life histories you haven’t heard before, you’ll love this book.

What novel would you like me to review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. My novel, Bronte’s Mistress, is available in hardcover, audiobook, and e-book now, and the paperback will be released on June 22nd! Want to stay in touch? Sign up for my monthly email newsletter below.

Get updates on my novel - Bronte's Mistress

* indicates required


Tuesday, 30 March 2021

January/February 2021 Articles about Bronte’s Mistress

My debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, tells the story of Lydia Robinson, the older woman rumoured to have had an affair with Branwell Bronte. The book was published back in 2020 by Atria Books, and, as we’ve entered a new year, I’m switching to a bimonthly roundup of the latest and greatest press coverage. 

January saw still more end of year summaries, like those I shared in my December post. Austenprose named Bronte’s Mistress the #2 historical novel of the year. This great article also highlighted other novels I’m reviewed and recommended on this blog—Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen, Janice Hadlow’s The Other Bennet Sister, Kathleen Flynn’s The Jane Austen Project, and Natalie Jenner’s The Jane Austen Society—along with Martha Waters’s To Have and To Hoax, which I very much enjoyed, and so many other books that I have to add to my “to read” list.

Courtney of Courtney Reads Romance shared highlights of the 764 (!) books she read last year, and ranked Bronte’s Mistress at #17. And Bronte’s Mistress WON the historical fiction category in the 2020 Bookish Jazz Awards, thanks to reader votes!

Meanwhile, with Valentine’s season upon us, I cautioned bookworms to count themselves lucky they don’t live in the times of Bridgerton, in this piece I penned for Women Writers, Women[’s] Books.

Bronte’s Mistress made it into LitHub for a second time with coverage of my interview for the New Books Network Podcast (check out my own essay for the publication on the links between this Bronte scandal and Charles Webb’s The Graduate here). And Booklist looked back on books including mine, which were written by women authors and appeared in 2020—the centenary year of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Thank you all for the continued love and support! I’ll be back with another instalment of this series in May, summarising March and April coverage.

If you’d like me to speak to your book club about Bronte’s Mistress, please get in touch. You can DM me on Instagram, message me on Facebook, or tweet @SVictorianist. And don’t forget to sign up for my monthly email newsletter below. 

Get updates on my novel - Bronte's Mistress

* indicates required


Saturday, 20 March 2021

Writers’ Questions: “How should I format dialogue?” the writer asked.

Since the sale of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, in 2019, I’ve been sharing answers to burning questions about writing and publishing on this blog (as well as my usual posts on all things Victorian literature and culture). Today, I’m tackling formatting dialogue—one of the things I see beginner writers struggle with the most.

First up, some caveats. I’m half British, half Irish, and live in New York City. Although I use British spelling on this blog, my novel was published first in the US, so I’m most familiar with standard dialogue formatting in North America. Additionally, as with any writing “rule,” there will always be exceptions. There are writers who are experimental with dialogue, but this post is about the standard approach.

So let’s get into it. 

The words that your characters say aloud should be between double quotation marks (“   ”). E.g. “It’s raining.” Sentence-ending punctuation (. or ? or !) goes inside the quotation marks to form a grammatically complete sentence.

To indicate which of your characters is speaking, you’ll need a dialogue tag, unless this is already clear from context. A dialogue tag contains a verb denoting speech and a character name or pronoun. It can precede or (more commonly) follow dialogue. 

Example of preceding dialogue tag:

He said, “It’s raining.” 

Example of following dialogue tag:

“It’s raining,” he said.

Tags and dialogue should be divided from each other by a comma (,), which comes before the quotation marks in a preceding dialogue tag and inside the quotation marks if the dialogue is followed by a tag. While the comma is standard, it can also be replaced within a line of dialogue by a question mark or exclamation point as appropriate. 

Example with a question mark:

“Is it raining?” he asked.

Example with an exclamation point:

“It’s raining!” he said.

This, however, is incorrect:

“It’s raining.” he said.

As is this:

"It's raining." He said.

A common mistake I see writers making is treating sentences like dialogue tags when they aren’t telling us speech happened. It can be a great idea to include action and body language within a section of dialogue, but just because a sentence follows dialogue it does not make it a tag!

This is incorrect:

“It’s raining,” he pointed at the window. 

This is correct:

“It’s raining.” He pointed at the window.

And this could work too:

“It’s raining,” he said, pointing at the window.

Verbs that writers do this with a lot include “to laugh” and “to smile”. Neither of these should be used as dialogue tags!

Every time a different speaker starts talking, the dialogue should begin a new paragraph.

Example:

“It’s raining,” he said.

“Really?” she asked.

Because of this, if your section of dialogue involves only two characters, after you’ve established the order of speaking, you can dispense with dialogue tags as the speaker is implied.

Example:

“It’s raining,” Jack said.

“Really?” Jane asked.

“Yes—look!”

“I have to see this for myself!” Jane hurried to the window.

The verbs “to say” and “to ask” are the most commonly used in dialogue tags and are almost invisible to readers on the page, so don’t worry about overusing them! Occasionally, you may want to use a verb that tells readers how a character speaks, such as “to whisper” or “to shout”, but these should be used sparingly. Unusual dialogue tag verbs (think: “he ejaculated”) should be avoided as they sound ridiculous and detract from the dialogue itself.

If one of your characters speaks at length in a monologue, you may want to include paragraphs. When these occur within dialogue the rule is that you shouldn’t close your quotation marks at the end of a paragraph, but you should open them again at the start of the next.

Example:

“I’m going to talk at length now,” Jack said. “I warn you I may go on for several paragraphs for the purposes of this example. I might have mentioned it was raining. Well, it rained yesterday and the day before and the day before that.

“In fact, I can’t remember the last day it didn’t rain, making for thrilling dialogue examples in this blog post.”

You won’t want to write entirely natural dialogue in your novel, as in real life people talk in fragments, are ungrammatical, and, um, say “um” a lot. But you will want your dialogue to feel natural. This means that occasionally, you may want your characters to speak in grammatically incomplete sentences. 

If your character is interrupted by another character, use an em-dash (—). Ideally your readers should be able to guess how the sentence would have ended had the speaker had a chance to finish.

Example:

“It’s rain—”

“I saw,” Jane said.

If your character’s speech trails off (e.g. they’re deep in thought or wistful), use ellipses (...).

Example:

“I haven’t seen rain like this since…”

“I know,” said Jane. “I’m sorry.”

Still with me? If so, let’s make things even more confusing, by talking about dialogue within dialogue i.e. when one character quotes another. In this instance, the quoted speech should appear in single quotation marks (‘  ’).

Example:

“What did Jim say?” Jack asked.

“He said, ‘It’s raining,’” Jane said, putting down the phone. 

I hope this post has been helpful in running over the basics of how dialogue should appear in your novel manuscript. Still have questions? Feel free to contact me via Facebook or Instagram, or to tweet me @SVictorianist

My debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, is available in hardcover, audiobook, and e-book now. For writing tips and more, sign up to my monthly email newsletter below.

Get updates on my novel - Bronte's Mistress

* indicates required


Tuesday, 9 March 2021

Review: Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, Kate Summerscale (2012)

My debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress (2020), is about Lydia Robinson, the married woman who had an affair with Branwell Bronte, the Bronte sisters’ brother. So I was intrigued to read a (non-fiction) book about another real Mrs Robinson—Isabella Robinson—whose divorce scandalised the nineteenth-century press.

Kate Summerscale’s 2012 book, Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, is less of a biography of Isabella, and more of a social history about the advent of divorce in Victorian Britain, which takes the Robinson vs. Robinson & Lane case as its centrepiece. 

Like my Mrs Robinson, Isabella was in her forties when she began an affair with a younger man. However, in this case, the object of her passions was also married and her social equal—a doctor and proponent of hydropathy, whose business would be significantly damaged if courts found he had committed adultery.

But, wait, you might be thinking—wasn’t divorce illegal in England? It was during the 1840s when Branwell and Lydia engaged in their ill-fated affair but, in 1858, when Henry Robinson read his wife’s private diaries and exposed her infidelities, the legal system had just provided a provision for a total separation, albeit with caveats. 

Divorce still couldn’t be procured due to incompatibility or unhappiness. But a man could now divorce his wife for adultery. For wives things were harder. They had to demonstrate that their husband had been guilty of an additional crime (e.g. abandonment or cruelty)—breaking the marital vow was not enough. 

In practice then, divorce was complicated and expensive, so it was largely the upper middle classes who flocked to the court. The Robinsons were wealthy and well connected. Henry was fixated on revenge. The story was one designed to capture the public imagination.

A curiosity of the case was Mrs Robinson’s written confession—her diary, a document she’d assumed her husband would never read. Isabella’s legal counsel ultimately “defended” her from the charge of adultery by arguing that she was insane. She was, they claimed, a nymphomaniac who had blurred the lines between fact and fiction in her journal, an adulteress in her heart, but not in reality. 

This Victorian refusal to accept the simplest explanation for women’s actions, especially when this involved acknowledging their sexual appetites, is one I’ve written about previously on this blog, for instance in my 2013 Women in the Witness Box series. This pattern played out in both literature and life, from the notorious murder trial of Madeleine Smith to Isabella’s divorce hearing.

The testimony about the diary also reveals public uneasiness about the influence of novels on their (largely female) readership. Women were considered prone to hysteria, exaggeration and dangerous excitement. And Isabella Robinson was seen as having novelised her own life, whether by acting out her fantasies or just indulging in them privately. As Gwendolen Fairfax notes in Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest, “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”

Overall, Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace is a good read if you’re interested in the history of divorce and/or women’s rights in the nineteenth century. There are also great passages on Victorian medicine and pre-Freudian psychology, as Summerscale discusses how the Robinsons and their circle engaged with phrenology and sought “cures” for masturbation (spoiler: prostitutes). But don’t pick this up expecting titillation. Isabella and the men she desired don’t leap of the page. This is a scholarly, if accessible, work; Summerscale leaves sensation to the novelists. 

What book would you like me to review next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. If you’d like to read a novel about Lydia Robinson, whose disgrace preceded Isabella Robinson’s, make sure to check out Bronte’s Mistress in hardcover, audiobook and e-book. And, for updates on my writing and blog, subscribe to my monthly email newsletter below. 

Get updates on my novel - Bronte's Mistress

* indicates required


Sunday, 21 February 2021

Writers’ Questions: How should I format my manuscript?

Since the sale of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, in 2019, I’ve been sharing advice for writers on this blog as part of my Writers’ Questions series. Today, I’ll be talking about how to format your novel manuscript to set yourself up for success when submitting to agents and/or editors. Please note that this advice is aimed at writers seeking to be traditionally published vs. those preparing books for self-publishing.

First up, a word on software. I’ve written a whole post on this topic, which you can refer to here. I personally use Scrivener while drafting my novels. However, Microsoft Word is still the standard word processor, and .doc/.docx the required file format when submitting manuscripts. So, as soon as I’m ready to share my work with others (writers’ groups, my agent, my editor etc.), this is the software I move to. Now, let’s get into the formatting.

Cover Page

Your manuscript should begin with a cover page that features your book’s title, your name, and the manuscript’s word count. If you’re submitting your manuscript to someone who doesn’t know you (e.g. you’re querying vs. submitting to an agent you’ve already signed with), it’s a good idea to also include your contact information (most commonly an email address and maybe a phone number). Make it easy for the reader: at a glance, they should be able to tell what it is they’re reading and how to get in touch with you.

Font

I submit in Times New Roman at size 12, but any classic font (e.g. Arial) should be fine. Courier I see more often as the number one choice for screenwriters vs. novelists. Please be aware though that agents and editors may have their own preferences and change the font to read your manuscript. For this reason, I don’t recommend using multiple fonts in your book e.g. to convey different points of view or formats (letters, newspaper clippings etc.). 

Header

After the cover page, I include a header on every subsequent page in the format LAST NAME/BOOK TITLE, e.g. AUSTIN/BRONTE’S MISTRESS. Agents and editors will almost certainly be reading multiple books in any given week, so make their jobs easier and label your work.

Page Numbers

Include them! Books are long and page numbers make them more manageable. I put the page number in the footer in the bottom right corner.

Chapters

Should begin on a new page. I start each new chapter five lines down the page.

Sentence Spacing

Should be double. The aim isn’t to make your manuscript look like a real book yet. It’s all about making an editor or agent’s life easier and the spaces make for cleaner editing. 

Paragraphs

Each new paragraph should begin with an indent. 

Scene Breaks

I use three asterisks (***) between scene breaks that occur within a chapter. In a published book, these may be indicated by fancier symbols, or no symbol at all, just white space, but in a manuscript, clarity is key, so I go for this standard marker.

And there you have it! There’s no need to get fancy when formatting novel manuscripts, and, in this instance, blending in with the crowd is much better than standing out for all the wrong reasons. A manuscript is a working document and adopting the right formatting is a great way to show that you’re professional and know what you’re doing. 

Do you have any other topics you’d love me to cover in my Writers’ Questions series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Want to read my novel, Bronte’s Mistress (now in beautiful book vs. manuscript form)? It’s available in hardcover, audiobook and e-book now. And don’t forget to subscribe to my monthly email newsletter below. 

Get updates on my novel - Bronte's Mistress

* indicates required



Monday, 8 February 2021

Review: Queen Victoria: Twenty-Four Days That Changed Her Life, Lucy Worsley (2018)

Despite being “the Secret Victorianist” and running a blog dedicated to all things nineteenth-century literature and culture, I’ve not spent much time reading about Queen Victoria herself. So I was excited to read Lucy Worlsey’s unconventional biography, which looks at the life of this influential monarch through the lens of twenty-four specific days.

Worsley examines Victoria as a daughter—the winner of the so-called “baby race,” which saw the children of George III scrambling to produce a royal heir. Next, she focuses on Victoria as a wife, from her first impressions of her cousin Albert to the early years of their marriage, to its tragic end. And, finally, she turns to Victoria as she is now best remembered—as the dour and unsmiling widow, who has come to symbolise the age she in some ways defined. 

In her introduction, Worlsey writes that popular culture has given us “two Victorias, bearing no clear relationship to each other”—the young and the old. She tries to draw the through-line between the two, although the biography’s premise naturally leads to jumps through time, especially following Albert’s death.

What I enjoyed most about the book was its readable prose (this isn’t the sort of non-fiction read you have to slog through!) and the wide appeal I think it would have. There are enough tantalising details in here to please a dedicated Victorianist, but knowledge of the period, or the British Royal Family, is not a prerequisite. 

I also appreciated Worsley’s candour in her introduction where she answers the question biographers must get tired of hearing. Does she like her human subject? She writes: “The answer is yes, initially hesitant, but ultimately resounding.” 

This should clue you in that this biography isn’t going to deliver a critique of monarchy, or Britain’s colonial activity under Victoria’s rule. Worsley approaches this book with scholarship, but also with the reverence dedicated royal watchers accord to The Firm today. Page time is given to wedding dresses, pageantry, and Christmas traditions, as well as to British and global politics. And, whatever you might think of them, Worsley gives us a convincing argument that these trappings form an important part of Victoria’s most enduring legacy.

If you’ve enjoyed Netflix’s The Crown and want to understand the woman who set the stage for the current queen the century before, this could be a good read for you. And, if you know the broad strokes of Victoria’s life, this will offer new, very human insights. But, be warned, if you lean more republican than monarchist, you might want to stay away. 

Do you have any recommendations of books for me to read and review next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Want to read my (Victorian-set) novel? Bronte’s Mistress, the story of the “bad woman who corrupted Branwell Bronte” is available in hardcover, ebook, or audiobook now. And make sure you sign up for my monthly email newsletter below. 

Get updates on my novel - Bronte's Mistress

* indicates required


Saturday, 23 January 2021

Review: Delphine, Germaine de Staël (1802)

The last nineteenth-century French novel I reviewed, Rachilde’s The Marquise de Sade (1887), introduced us to a heroine who plumbed the depths of sexual depravity. By contrast, Germaine de Staël’s Delphine, another French novel by a woman writer, from the opposite end of the century, takes great pains to depict the purity of its titular character. 

Delphine d'Albémar, a widow, is young, beautiful, compassionate and unrelentingly “good” for ~500 pages, as de Staël uses her story to depict the inequalities women faced in the years of the French Revolution. 

The man she loves, Léonce de Mondoville, is weaker and more volatile, unwilling to be satisfied by merely platonic affection, when fate (in the form of the scheming Sophie de Vernon) divides him from Delphine. Still, it is the woman in this unfortunate would-be coupling who bears the brunt of social shame and suffering throughout the story, which unfolds through a series of letters. 

De Staël’s use of the epistolary form is a wonderful window into the social life of the French upper classes, even if certain letters, especially Delphine’s confessional/diary-like messages to her sister-in-law, strain our credulity. We’re introduced to a social scene in which reputation is more important than innocence. Women are ostracised for sexual misconduct, and men for cowardice. Modern readers may find themselves yelling “just move somewhere else and live together!” but our characters’ cages are in their own minds. 

Sophie de Vernon is the most fascinating character. She’s manipulative without being cartoonish-ly evil, and adept at playing by this society’s rules to get ahead. But after her early exit (spoiler alert: she dies), the ill-starred lovers seem to be each other’s worst enemies. Meanwhile, Madame de Vernon’s daughter (and Léonce’s wife!), Mathilde, never really comes into her own to become the crucial missing piece of our love triangle. 

Recently, I’ve been reviewing twenty-first-century novels set during the French Revolution (roundups here and here), so I was particularly keen to see how Germaine de Staël incorporated this historical backdrop. However, despite the novel being set between 1789 and 1792, the political context isn’t foregrounded. There are moments when historical events intersect with the plot (e.g. a character fleeing arrest, or the novel’s denouement, which plays out against a battlefield), but, anxious to avoid Napoleon’s displeasure, de Staël kept much of her commentary subtle.

The book is most political in that it shows how a woman could do everything “right” and still have her life become a tragedy. But, unfortunately, Delphine’s “goodness”—crucial for landing this message at the time the book was written—makes this a slightly eye roll-inducing read today.

What nineteenth-century novel (French or otherwise) would you like to see me review next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

My own novel, Bronte’s Mistress, is available in hardcover, audiobook, and e-book now. For updates on my writing and reading, please sign up for my monthly email newsletter below. 

Get updates on my novel - Bronte's Mistress

* indicates required


Sunday, 17 January 2021

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Other Bennet Sister, Janice Hadlow (2020)

A few years ago, as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series, I reviewed Katherine J. Chen’s Mary B (2018). Today, I’m writing about another twenty-first century novel centred on Mary, the plainest of Elizabeth’s sisters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813)—Janice Hadlow’s The Other Bennet Sister (2020). 

Hadlow’s Mary is true to Austen’s original characterisation. She’s spectacle wearing, bookish and, oh so very, serious, rejected by her mother for her plainness and uninteresting to her father due to her lack of humour. Caught between two pairs of sisters—Jane and Elizabeth, and Kitty and Lydia—Mary seems totally alone, even at bustling Longbourn. The housekeeper Mrs Hill is one of the few people to show compassion towards her, while Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas tries to give her practical advice about how a woman without beauty can get by in a patriarchal world. The first section of Hadlow’s novel begins with Mary’s childhood, including her gradual realisation of her perceived inferiority to her older sisters. Then the book covers well-worn ground, rehashing the early events of Pride and Prejudice, up until Mr Collins’s engagement to Charlotte.

At this point, I was intrigued, if not delighted. It was interesting to see familiar scenes from Mary’s viewpoint, especially her disastrous piano playing. And there were great historical details, for instance regarding Mary’s reading material and early-nineteenth-century optometry. 

However, the novel really came into its own when we jumped forward in time to a few years after the conclusion of Austen’s book. When we rejoin Mary, she is the only unmarried Bennet sister. Of no fixed abode, she moves between the houses of her sisters and friends, trying to find her place in the world. Her father is dead. Her mother has despaired of her. The domineering Lady Catherine would like to see her packed off as an unfortunate governess. 

I have an especial interest in this plight of single upper-middle-class women in the period, who found themselves dependent on the charity of their friends and relatives. In my novel, Bronte’s Mistress, I depict what this might have been like for a widow, but unmarried girls like Mary had even fewer options. However, as she matures, Hadlow’s Mary turns these unfortunate circumstances to her advantage, using her methodical mind to assess the different households she visits—Jane’s, Elizabeth’s, Charlotte’s and her aunt Gardiner’s.

Other, non-canonical characters begin to take centre stage, including Tom Haywood, a London lawyer with a love of Wordsworth, who helps Mary discover her more poetic and feeling side. But I also enjoyed Hadlow’s on-going nods to her source material. Mary’s final confrontation with Miss Bingley recalls her sister Elizabeth’s argument with Lady Catherine. A well-described trip to the Lakes with the Gardiners brings back Lizzie’s truncated vacation. 

Overall, while I do agree with some reviewers that The Other Bennet Sister could have been slightly shorter, I’d highly recommend the book to fans who prefer their Austen-inspired fiction to be less radical and revisionist, and more thoughtful and additive. I was worried that spending another book with Mary might be tiresome, but she won me over by the end!

What twenty-first-century written, nineteenth-century set novels would you like me to review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Love Bronte’s Mistress and want to stay up to date with news about my writing? Sign up for my monthly newsletter below. 

Get updates on my novel - Bronte's Mistress

* indicates required




Friday, 8 January 2021

December Articles about Bronte’s Mistress

It’s 2021, which means it’s no longer my debut year, but I still have one final monthly roundup of articles about my novel, Bronte’s Mistress. Check out the February/March, April/May, June/July, August, September, October and November editions for a trip down memory lane, but today I’m covering coverage from December 2020. 

In celebration of the season, I was the speaker at the Oxford and Cambridge Society of New England’s (virtual) Christmas Party. It was so much fun sharing how I researched and wrote my book with fellow Oxford alumni, and, yes, so Cambridge people too (catch a recording here).

My final podcast appearance of the year, with New Books in Historical Fiction, also aired. I was in conversation with fellow novelist C.P. Lesley, who wrote a great article, “The Corset of Culture” on Lydia Robinson’s dilemma in Bronte’s Mistress.

My book was named one of the best of the year by bloggers The Literate Quilter and Writer Gurl NY, while the Captivated Reader blog listed my Austen vs. the Brontes discussion with The Jane Austen Society author Natalie Jenner one of the best virtual author events of the year (listen to our debate here).

And Bookreporter included Bronte’s Mistress in their annual roundup of Bets On picks. Carol Fitzgerald’s roundup of 40+ of the best books of the year is well worth watching, so make a cup of tea, settle back and enjoy!

Looking back at the year, here are some quick (not very scientifically counted) stats of what went down (mostly since my novel’s release in August):

I wrote 16+ personal essays about the book, many of which are linked in these August and September summaries. 

I appeared on 10+ radio shows and podcasts, all of which are listed on my website

I spoke at 30+ virtual events (check out the blog posts tagged "Video" for some that were recorded).

I kept track of 100+ articles about the book and/or interviews with me, but am sure I missed some!

I am so grateful to the journalists, bloggers, Bookstagrammers, YouTubers, reviewers, authors, bookstores and librarians who have supported me on this most unusual of debut years. From the bottom of my heart, THANK YOU! 

The Bronte’s Mistress paperback comes out in June, and I’ve already started receiving some 2021 coverage, but I’ll be pivoting to bimonthly press summaries again to blog a little more about nineteenth-century literature and culture, and a little less about my book. 

Don’t forget that you can always contact me—on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. I also send a monthly email newsletter (sign up below) and Bronte’s Mistress is available in hardcover, audiobook and e-book now. 

Get updates on my novel - Bronte's Mistress

* indicates required