In March I was involved in a literary festival, both as an organiser and as a contributor. One of the things I did was to talk about suspense fiction with Helen Matthews and Katharine Johnson. At the end, we opened the floor to the audience. Here are some of the questions, and some of the answers I gave. Feel free to ask me more!
Why choose a woman as a main character in eras when women couldn’t do much? Wouldn’t a man’s life be more exciting?
Who says? Just because until fairly recently, history portrays women (if mentioned at all ) as weak, ineffectual, sentimental, irrational, puppets or playthings, the epitome of purity or full of evil intent, does that mean they really were? History may record queens who changed the destinies of whole countries for good or ill, but there were other women, whose names tend to be forgotten, who made strides in science and arts (see list below), many of these came from very humble beginnings. They climbed mountains and traversed deserts, unhindered by long skirts and corsets. They were private detectives, social reformers, physicians. Why don’t we hear about them from contemporary writers? Perhaps because the writers were mostly men. Maybe those men feared or reviled powerful women or perhaps just simply weren’t interested in writing adventures involving them. Weak? Ineffectual? Not a bit of it. I want to celebrate the sort of women who really existed – not especially important in the greater scheme of things but full of life, intelligence, spirit and determination – and give them something more exciting to do than wait for their menfolk to come home from an adventure.
Why did you decide to write about particular eras?
Partly there’s so much potential. By the late second century in Britain of the Murder Britannica series, the Britons in my books have a degree of political control, and are undoubtedly enjoying everything the Empire has to offer: new foods, easier trade routes, the chance for their sons to join the army and travel and come back with citizenship and wealth. The Empire isn’t as rotten as it will be, even if the Emperor is bonkers. And in Western Britain there’s a reasonable chance you can get away with a little more (and have some fun) if you keep your head down a little.
The late Victorian era of Caster and Fleet is one where women are starting to flex muscles of independence. Careers are starting to open up Nursing has become respectable. A university education (if not a degree) is possible. The bicycle has revolutionised the lives of anyone who can afford one and train travel is affordable for many, opening up the country to people whose ancestors had barely moved five miles for generations. So what does that mean for two young women who can maybe get away from chaperones long enough to investigate crime? Will they rise to the challenge or be held back by convention?
By the late Edwardian era of the Margaret Demeray series, things have moved on again, the old age pension, national insurance and paid holidays are being introduced. But the popular images of the times (often called the Golden Era), full of glamorous elegant clothes and bright parties and rapidly developing innovations like aeroplanes and cinema, contrast violently with a dark underbelly of misery and discord among the poor, the increasing militancy of the suffrage movement, discontent about immigration and working conditions, so there’s a lot to throw at a woman who’s neither rich nor poor, who knows rich people and works among poor people, who wants the vote and social reform but has to decide what price she’ll pay to get it.
Do you ever feel conflicted about what’s going on in an era you’re writing about?
Yes it’s difficult not to be anachronistic about things which sit uncomfortably.
Slavery. Slavery in Roman times was an economic normality – no one would have questioned it at all. It was not a matter of race, but of conquest and also occurred among many of the local peoples of the Empire whether the Romans were there or not. It was unfair and mostly cruel, and a slave was without any form of basic human rights. It was a different sort of slavery to the kind which we tend to think of now. If a slave was freed, there was no social barrier to getting on in life. It was quite possible (and happened) for the grandson of a freed slave to become Emperor regardless of ancestry. However it was still slavery.
The British Empire in the later books. The Caster & Fleet series is set at perhaps the Empire’s heyday, in the Margaret Demeray series, twenty years later, cracks are starting to show, but an average subject in Great Britain might not have noticed. British actions in the Boer War were internationally condemned though how much of this filtered down to the general public is uncertain. The Indian independence movement was gaining ground, and of course the Irish Question was still waiting for an answer. As a modern person, it’s impossible not to feel an abhorrence for the jingoism of the late 19th/early 20th century, lauding the glories of an Empire the wealth of which was built on the suffering of people from across its many nations and which treated native peoples as second or even third class citizens in their own countries. It’s also hard to stomach the way the British government played cat and mouse with the Irish people less than a hundred years after the potato famine had been so woefully handled and probably in living memory of some of the survivors. Margaret and her sister Katherine can see a lot of this for themselves, but it’s unlikely that they’d have viewed it with exactly the same disdain that I do nowadays.
Are your characters’ conflicts ones you recognise for yourself?
Lucretia’s aren’t. She’s stinking rich and I’m not sure she’d recognise an internal conflict unless it hit her on the head and robbed her of her money. She had one once, but she’s long buried it. Or maybe she had two… Tryssa perhaps – having to decide whether to tackle Lucretia and rake up old memories for the sake of the truth, and then having to decide whether or not to move away from the only home she’s known – I can relate to that.
Margaret’s situation is much more relatable. She’s a career woman who in the third book has also recently become a mother. Combining a job she wants to excel at with a family she loves and never quite feeling like she’s giving her best to either, is something I remember very well.
Which character is most like you?
As other authors will say, most of my characters contain aspects of myself. But in terms of who’s most like me, in personality Katherine probably is – she’s a coper whom everyone thinks is confidant but who actually isn’t and who wishes people noticed when she’s struggling. In terms of size, shape and looks, I’m like Lucretia – short, plump, middle-aged. On the other hand, Lucretia wears three inches of make-up and is completely self-deluded. Sometimes, I think it would be quite nice to be self-deluded! But I couldn’t be doing with the make-up.
If you’d been there, what questions would you have asked about my books?
Lesser known women of note
19th Century British Female Artists
19th Century Female Mountaineers
Victorian Female Private Detectives
Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image credit https://pixabay.com/vectors/woman-thinking-sitting-desk-41201/