19th century women

So, I’m writing my new horror book, which is titled Doppelgänger. (You may remember me calling for beta readers a while back). Doppelgänger takes place mostly in New York in the year 1880, and the main character is a woman, a young aristocratic lady from Scandinavia who, after a whirlwind romance, finds herself married to an American gentleman in high Manhattan society. Oh, yes, and they live in a haunted house. That’s crucial to the story, but not to this post.

This is the first time I’ve written the majority of a book from the point of view of a female main character. Certain segments of the Giamotti novels have female protagonists (most notably Rhapsody N. Blue), but for this book I’ve had to put myself in the place and the mindset of a woman in the late 19th century, and you’d be surprised both how difficult that is and how different it is from our own day. As a man living in the 21st century, creating a compelling, interesting, strong true-to-life female character from the Victorian era is really quite an amazing challenge. To write good fiction you need characters who act and affect their environment and exert agency on the course of the story. When we think of women in the past we tend to emphasize inaction or inability to affect their circumstance; 19th century women, for instance, were denied political opportunity, access to employment, and legal parity with men. A 19th century woman, however, would not necessarily think or act in terms congruous with how we, as 21st century people with 21st century values, would act if we were put back in her situation. This is a major trap for writing this sort of book.

Consider the two following hypothetical plots to see what I mean.

Plot 1. Carlette O’Shara is an assertive, independent-minded woman living in the South in 1875. After her husband is killed in a duel with the evil Snidely Whiplash, a crooked banker who is also out to buy Carlette’s plantation, she decides to get revenge. She takes over her late husband’s lumber business, builds it into an economic empire, and uses it to buy a controlling share of Whiplash’s bank. She also romances the dapper millionaire Brett Rutler and boldly proposes marriage. After she takes over Whiplash’s bank, she fires him, throws his family into the poorhouse, then for her final revenge rides onto his farm, pulls a pistol and blows him away. She and Rutler live happily ever after.

Plot 2. The South, 1875. After Carlette O’Shara’s husband is killed in a duel by the evil Snidely Whiplash, Carlette decides to get revenge. She convinces her brother to buy her plantation to save it from Whiplash’s bank. She accepts the attentions of the dapper millionaire Brett Rutler, whom she isn’t completely smitten with, in the hopes of being able to convince him to help her. Eventually she falls in genuine love with Rutler and they get married. Seeing her final vengeance in the offing, she engineers a social incident where Rutler is forced to defend her honor in a duel with Whiplash. Unbeknownst to anyone, Carlette tampers with Whiplash’s pistol before the duel. Whiplash’s gun misfires, Rutler kills him, and Whiplash’s heirs are forced to sell his bank to Rutler. She and Rutler live happily ever after.

These two stories are almost identical. The central idea is the conflict between Carlette and Whiplash; the outcome (Whiplash is killed, she and Rutler live HEA) is the same. But Plot 1 doesn’t ring very true at all, does it? It presumes that the best way to demonstrate Carlette’s assertiveness, independence and agency is to show her breaking out of the gender roles of Victorian times. In Plot 1, she takes over a major business, wheels and deals, proposes marriage to the man she wants, and ultimately goes so far as to destroy her enemy personally. That’ll teach ’em, right? Well, not really.

victorian 1

Do you see a difference here? Sure–but defining it might be a lot harder than you think.

The strength of Plot 2 is that it demonstrates Carlette’s assertiveness, independence and agency consistently with the way Victorian women did so in real life. The Carlette of Plot 2 may have exactly the same burning desire to destroy Whiplash as the Carlette of Plot 1, but the difference is that in Plot 2 Carlette works with what she would really have had in the South in 1875, not what we in 2013 think she should have had. She knows she cannot buy out Whiplash’s bank, or gun down her enemy in cold blood. What she has to do is work around those limitations and use the tools available to her in the real world. Consequently, Plot 2 is a much more interesting story.

This is an extremely simplified example, to be sure; I’m trying to make the contrast very stark so as to make the point. But the whole process of writing Doppelgänger has been the process of not only seeing the world through the eyes of a gender I’m not, but a time that I don’t live in, and trying to keep my own thoughts and assumptions about gender ideas in the 21st century from infringing upon a story that takes place in another time.

This process is very tricky. It’s a lot more than reading up on corsets (though I’ve had to do research on that topic as well). I have no idea how successful I’ll end up being, but the attempt itself has been both fun and illuminating.

The photograph of the modern woman was taken by Flickr user Victor1558 and used/relicensed under Creative Commons 2.0 license (attribution). The 19th century images are public domain.