The Asylum – a review

The Asylum by John Harwood

There seems to be a theme, in a number of the books I’ve read, being that a woman’s confinement within an asylum has been part of some great conspiracy to, as I’ve noted before, silence them.

This is the kind of thing I’d love to study, and write a paper on. And I might just do that!

The Asylum — where do I start?
The Asylum, by John Harwood, is another great find in the “neo-Victorian” historical fiction genre. The characters, narrative, and atmosphere reeked of rich, Gothic elements. Just about every convention of the Gothic literary genre can be found in this novel.

The heroine of the novel, Georgina Ferrars, wakes up in Tregannon House (an asylum) with no memory of why or how she got there. Dr. Maynard Straker informs her that she came of her own free will, under the name of Lucy Ashton, but then suffered a seizure (causing her to lose her memory). Desperate for answers (and for someone to confirm her sanity), Georgina pleads with Dr. Straker to contact her only living relative, her uncle Josiah, so that he may identify her.

Now pay attention, dear readers, for one of our first Gothic conventions!

Her uncle swiftly responds, informing Dr. Straker that Georgina Ferrars is in fact at home with him, stating,

Your patient must be an imposter. (14)

Dun dun dunnn! Doppelgängers! I was just waiting for this line to come, “But if you’re there, then who’s…?” but sadly, it didn’t.

Now, I’ve mentioned a theme of silencing women — that is, I’ve found in my readings of “neo-Victorian” literature — by committing them. In The Asylum, there are a number of motives behind silencing Georgina Ferrars. The doppelgänger, of course, has her own motive — she wishes to take Georgina’s place. This was a very interesting, very different, kind of “silencing” for me to read in the genre. I haven’t as yet come across one like it, where the silencer or oppressor wasn’t a man. Though, in reading further, you will find there is a lot more to it than simply trying to take someone’s place, it soon becomes about erasing a person entirely. But, why would you want to erase the evidence of someone? I’ll leave that for you to figure out, because I assume you’ll go buy the book now.

The structure of the book was a little confusing, as the narrative moves through time, back and forth, but I took little issue with that. Each character and setting was so richly defined, I always knew which character was the focus (Georgina, Emily, and Rosina). The characters were all three-dimensional, and their desires and motivations believable. Save for one. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

It is certainly a difficult feat, creating such depth for most, if not all, the characters, considering a number of the characters and their actions are conveyed only through a series of letters. I wished there could have been more play on that; the notion of the unreliable narrator, because the reader finds the story, or series of stories, through the eyes of three different characters.

However, there were so many characters it was hard to keep up. I especially had difficulty figuring out the family trees.

I actually drew up a family tree to help me keep track. When I get the chance I’ll post it up.

Spoilers from here. Do not read further if you do not wish for the book to be spoiled. Well, who wishes for a book to be spoiled anyway?

And, it proved difficult even remembering Georgina’s and the doppelgänger’s identities. I don’t mean confusing them together, I mean, their names kept changing! (Draws in long breath) First it’s Georgina Ferrars. She admits herself to the asylum as Lucy Ashton, but it’s discovered the name is actually Lucia Ardent (and that ‘Lucy Ashton’ was just a disguise), except that Lucia Ardent is actually the name of the doppelgänger. Then, Georgina discovers her mother is not actually her mother, so instead of Ferrars, she’s actually a Mordaunt! So, she’s Georgina Mordaunt. (Releases breath).

My years of watching soap operas did help keep me up to date though 😉

The Asylum by John Harwood

I would have easily rated this book a Wuthering Heights, or Wormwood: A Drama of Paris, were it not for the ending. It wasn’t the type of ending that bothered me (though you know I have a particular love), it was the ‘bad guy’ spiel, the I’m-going-to-tell-you-everything-of-my-plans-because-I’m-going-to-kill-you-anyway-and-it’ll-be-of-little-consequence-should-I-do-so speech that every bad guy gives. It’s one of those cliches I could have done without, and it really bothered me after Harwood worked so hard to build this eerily beautiful and sublime Gothic atmosphere — one which won me over so easily.

I felt the ‘bad guy’ spiel undermined all of that (the atmosphere, story, plot, etc), and cheapened it, really, to the point that I groaned loudly when reading it. And it didn’t seem plausible that Dr. Straker was the big bad — I warned there’d be spoilers! He seemed suspicious and guilty of something, yes — perhaps in not being completely honest with Georgina — but it was rather elaborate the explanation behind all the incidents, behaviour, etc. One key example is the explanation behind Georgina’s seizure and subsequent memory loss at the beginning of the novel. I honestly groaned and rolled my eyes upon the revelation. I didn’t like it, but to Harwood’s credit, I never believed Dr. Straker when he said Georgina had a seizure — it was all too convenient that she couldn’t remember why she was at the asylum in the first place. I didn’t trust Dr. Straker even then, but it didn’t develop; there wasn’t enough to justify his actions at the end.

Really, to me, the ‘bad guy’ spiel seemed to come across as a clunky means of tying up loose ends (or answering questions the reader may have had), and creating a convenient justification for actions, and whatnot, unexplained. But, I guess, that is pretty much the motive of a ‘bad guy’ spiel, isn’t it? Why else would you have one?

And so that leads me to the other reason I decided on a lower rating — it just was not believable to me that Dr. Straker was the big bad, especially when considering the story and plot. His motives were minuscule and, frankly, I did not understand them. It was essentially a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde moment, except there was no build up to it — it was completely unexpected, and not in a good way. At least, not in my opinion.

One of Georgina’s greatest villains in the novel — the doppelgänger — becomes a meek shell of a person who doesn’t completely own her actions. Instead, this grand villain becomes the epitome of the Canadian never-ending apology…

Kate Beaton Canadian stereotype funIt seemed a little convenient for Georgina to be able to face her daemon finally (who had a mountain of motive, mind you), and forgive her so easily. Let’s recap though.

The doppelgänger (and main villain of the piece), Lucia Ardent, knows that Georgina has been falsely committed — it is revealed she is the one who sends the telegram, on “behalf” of the uncle. She is aware that Georgina has been trapped roughly five months in that damned asylum. She always had ill intentions, as she confesses at the end of the novel. And so, I simply cannot grasp Georgina’s ability to forgive so readily. In fact, Georgina decides that she will help keep Lucia out of prison for her crime.

Is it merely because there was a greater evil at work? That they had a common enemy in the end?

If I could go back in time, I’d tell past Cadence, “Stop about 80-90% in. You won’t like the ending.” Still, you guys know what I’m like. I like tragedies, I like sad or open endings, and I like the absence of ‘bad guy’ spiels.

BUT, revelation after revelation, this book was full of surprises and kept me on my toes. Despite the semi-predictable love elements to the story (even the one of a taboo nature!), there weren’t a lot of instances of me going, “Well, I knew that was going to happen!”

Again, the atmosphere and characters were rich and well-defined, and I’m always a fan of a bit of epistolary writing — another lovely Gothic element!

If I had stopped 80-90% in, I would have rated The AsylumWormwood: A Drama of Paris, or even a Wuthering Heights, but because I read to the very ending, I had to change my rating. So, instead…

I rate this book a Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

The scale:
10. Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
9. Wormwood: A Drama of Paris – Marie Corelli
8. Tess of the d’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
7. Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier
6. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – J.K. Rowling
5. Fox in Socks – Dr. Seuss
4. The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown
3. The Catcher in the Rye J. D. Salinger
2. Dune – Frank Herbert
1. Fallen – Lauren Kate
0. 50 Shades of Grey – E. L. James

Read more about the scale here

 


Image credits: Kate Beaton

Hardwood, John. The Asylum. Mariner Books: Boston and New York, 2013. Print.
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Florence & Giles – a review

Florence and Giles by John Harding

Florence & Giles, by John Harding is unlike anything I’ve read before. Sure, I’ve seen the Gothic elements before, but I’m talking about the language. At first I was like, “Jeez, there seems to be a few errors.” then I was like, “Have I forgotten English?” then I realised, “Ah!” and then it was like, “Holy shit! I love this!”

…for a girl my age I am very well worded. Exceeding well worded, to speak plain. But because of the strict views of my uncle regarding the education of females, I have hidden my eloquence, under-a-bushelled it, and kept any but the simplest forms of expression bridewelled within my brain. (5)

Florence is a girl who has been banned from reading. “Banned from reading?” I hear you say. “Bollocks to that!” You’re damn right, and Florence does not accept this rule of ‘illiteracy’ implemented by her uncle. While her younger brother, Giles, is sent off to school, Florence whiles away her days by sneaking into the library to read. From The Monk, by Matthew Lewis (yeah, I know what you’re thinking — and she’s only a young girl!) to The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins, The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe, and Jane Eyre, by you-know-who, it is clear that this 12-year-old is more cultured than me! Yeah, yeah, they’re on my TBR list, I assure you. Well, I’ve started The Mysteries of Udolpho… but anyway, back to the review.

When you read this book you see, hear, and feel her invented language. It’s very beautiful, and pleasing to the senses, in my opinion at least. This was another “Holy shit!” moment (it’s a long quote, because I loved it so much):

All I awared was that she neglected Giles, in whom she had less interest than in brushing her hair and mirroring her looks; I innocented her true nature and when she tragicked upon the lake I near drowned myself in a lake of my own tears, it so upset me. I thought her merely foolish and I guilted I had so despised her almost as much as I guilted that I did not save her, even though it impossibled me to do so, and kept thinking ‘if only I had this’ and ‘if only I had that,’ even though all these things would nothing have availed. (72)

I really wanted to add the entire block of text, as I found it so mesmerising, but it is indeed quite long as is. Now, I know what you’re thinking, but please calm down. I definitely would not consider this a spoiler. This particular scene is mentioned in the blurb. I merely wanted to give you a taste of the beauty of this novel; of Harding’s story, and of Florence’s words.

Florence and Giles by John Harding

So, the story
As you know, Florence is pretty well trapped inside a mansion with nothing to occupy her time. She is encouraged to take up embroidery (as many of her sex are encouraged to do), instead she uses the opportunity to hide her books beneath her work, and sneak a read whenever possible.

I have to say, as I side note, I am just loving reading all these books about women who defy their oppressors. Though, as you know (and from my reading of other works of the genre), most of those women are seen as a disgrace to their sex and are committed to asylums, to “cure” their waywardness. Or silenced, as I’ve discussed in other posts. In any case, they have been enjoyable reads, and quite empowering too! And, in reading these types of books, I am compelled to write a short essay on why “neo-Victorian” literature is becoming a means of conveying female empowerment.

Sorry, no more distractions
Florence also finds a kind of safe haven where she can read for hours without disruption. I’d honestly love something like that; a place, like Florence’s, where it’s difficult for others to access. I’m thinking something like a hidden room behind a book case! Sigh! Damn my wandering mind.

When Giles gets kicked out of school, Florence feels a sense of respite — they’re finally back together. But their bliss is short-lived when, after the death of their governess, a second one arrives, who completely overshadows the first in evilness. For while the first (Miss Whitaker) “unlibraried” Florence and the second (Miss Taylor) actually re-instated her librariedness (now I just made that one up!), Miss Taylor’s true motives soon become clear. To Florence, she is a spectre who wishes to do Giles harm. This (Part Two of the novel) is where the Gothic conventions are really thrown in your face. You cannot help but wonder if Miss Taylor truly is the evil spectre (of a vendetta-fuelled Miss Whitaker) as Florence imagines, or if her actions are misunderstood, and that Florence merely creates an enemy in her for she fears losing her brother — it is one thing to be lonely by yourself, and entirely another thing to be lonely because your brother has been stolen away by the affectionate hand of a stranger. In either case, I was hypnotised by every aspect of the novel, and scrupulously analysed every word, every action, because I was looking for clues, and even the tiniest moment was significant. For this reason, the book deserves at least a second read through — I want to take in each moment again, with the wonderment of hindsight on my side!

A love interest?
Yeah, there’s a bit of that going on. Theo Van Hoosier dotes on Florence, and even writes her terrible poetry in his attempt to win her. Still, terrible poetry is kind of sweet, if you like the guy (or girl). Their relationship sort of reminds me of the relationship between Eleanor and Mr. Ashwood (Henry) in my historical fiction, Eleanor. It’s a relationship that’s one…um… no, it’s probably best I don’t divulge any more.

And because I can’t help being cryptic, I must say, I do wonder about this line though…

My heart hopelessed a bird-in-a-cage flutter. (107)

And damn the beauty of it! Damn Florence and damn John Harding!

The ending
You guys know how picky I am with endings, but this novel’s ending… oh my god! I loved it. It was brilliant. Though I had an inkling of what was to come, Florence really came to life at the end, and I did not expect that. Her true nature — all the dark, macabre parts — was so thrilling to read. It was simply survival; her need to protect her brother (but perhaps she was influenced by her literature as well?), and I drank it up so easily. I loved her dark side.

Of course, I will not spoil it, I just had to tell you how much I loved Florence’s callous nature. It was beautiful, in a way. In a macabre way, haha! I told my partner about one particularly dark scene and how I loved it so much, and would possibly do the same were I in her position, and I was met with a face stricken with horror. Hmm… maybe I shouldn’t have said that!

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Florence & Giles has certainly convinced me to get cracking into The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James — another in my TBR bookcase, and a book which inspired Harding’s novel — and I will absolutely have to get myself a copy of Harding’s novel, The Girl Who Couldn’t Read.

Oh my god! I just went to my study and found that I already have a copy of it, haha! I will get into it asap. But, has that ever happened to you? You buy a book then realise you already have a copy? I have two copies of The Last Man, two of Jane Eyre, two of Beloved, and probably a lot more double-ups than that. Jeez!

Anyway, Florence & Giles was an amazing read, and I will absolutely be reading through it again soon. I highly recommend this book if you’ve read any of the works or authors that Florence has read, such as Radcliffe, Lewis, Collins, Brontë, Coleridge, Poe, Shakespeare, Scott, Austen, Whitman, Longfellow, Trollope, Eliot, Wordsworth, Dickens, Keats (though not sure about The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon). But I’d say, particularly, Gothic horror.

N.B.: There are some theories about this book; about the characters, their origins (Miss Taylor, for example appears seemingly from nowhere), their actions (whether they were just, for instance), and I am a little uncertain myself, I confess. I have my own theories, and I would love to hear yours. So, drop me a line if you wish to chat all things Florence & Giles.

I rate this book a Wuthering Heights.

The scale:
10. Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
9. Wormwood: A Drama of Paris – Marie Corelli
8. Tess of the d’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
7. Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier
6. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – J.K. Rowling
5. Fox in Socks – Dr. Seuss
4. The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown
3. The Catcher in the Rye J. D. Salinger
2. Dune – Frank Herbert
1. Fallen – Lauren Kate
0. 50 Shades of Grey – E. L. James

Read more about the scale here

 


Harding, John. Florence & Giles. Blue Door: London, 2010. Print.

An unintentional review post on Wildthorn

Wildthorn by Jane Eagland

All of my books have arrived in the mail. Woo! I can’t wait to crack into them!

I recently finished reading Wildthorn, by Jane Eagland. It was amazing! But, I will speak (write?) more of that in a minute. I just started Florence and Giles, by John Harding. It was so difficult to choose (from those above), but I wanted to go with something not so terribly close to Wildthorn, in terms of plot or story, as it would possibly all bleed together, and I haven’t had any breaks from reading. So, a different story will have to be the break. It is hard though, as I have obviously chosen a particular type of novel I am after for the comps. I might consider straying away for a wee while, after Florence and Giles — either a break entirely, or temporarily move on to another genre — before my brain implodes.

But firstly, I want to talk about Wildthorn.
I haven’t read a book so remarkably rich in detail, so powerful, and with a plot and story so gut-wrenchingly beautiful yet painful, in a very long time. It was full of twists — some I could see coming, though most I could not — scandals, secret and forbidden loves, betrayal (like, I-want-to-punch-that-person-in-the-face betrayal), as well as I-want-to-punch-that-person-in-the-face-again loss and sadness. I was also very fond of the language, style, and tone of the novel. And, the research that went into this book? The detail of the asylum, the “treatments”, the characterisation of the doctors and patients — just wow!

Wildthorn Jane Eagland

Much like my Eleanor, the heroine of Wildthorn, Louisa Cosgrove, craves a life off the path which has been already laid for her. Her desire to become a doctor is relentlessly and mercilessly crushed by external forces; namely her family, who does nothing but try and rid her of her unfeminine qualities, and her unfeminine dream.

Most of the book explores the consequences of a nineteenth-century woman choosing to defy the societal expectations of her sex. A vindictive plot against her stifles her dream, if only physically, for she is incarcerated in an asylum, Wildthorn Hall, for her crimes against not only her sex, but her family — an unruly woman, seeking a career reserved solely for men, would bring shame to the family.

Louisa is the kickarse heroine we need. She’s not going to go out and start beating up baddies, but her knowledge of the scientific world, for instance, makes me want to be just like her — I think contemporary women would absolutely idolise her. In fact, you could say, she’s just like Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer: independent, intelligent, and is possessed by a desire to harness the dark arts. Well, not quite, but in the Victorian period, a woman’s fascination with such unrefined or masculine things, was just as sinful.

Eagland never stopped surprising me. I’d think I had something figured out, but then I’d be blown away with revelation after revelation.

For instance, Louisa was committed under the name Lucy Childs. Of course, I started off believing it to be some conspiracy. It’s absolutely something that could have happened in nineteenth-century England. Women were committed for all manner of absurd reasons, and it wasn’t difficult to make a woman seem crazy — a woman wanting to be anything other than what was expected of her, is enough for her to be deemed mad — so, I believed her to be honest about her identity, but then I was soon convinced that perhaps her incarceration really was done for her benefit. Perhaps whoever was responsible did really care for her well-being. Of course, I quickly dismissed that idea too, for surely they would have at least considered the rest cure to such a horrible alternative. Yet, the asylum is the ideal place to silence a person — a woman.

Once you delve deeper, you start to doubt yourself, and you start to fear that you would have been committed, had you lived in Victorian England.

This should be enough to scare you from ever attempting time travel.

Reasons for admission

Solving the puzzle of who was responsible for Louisa’s imprisonment had me devouring page after page. It was impossible to put this book down, save for sleep. And, I never stopped hoping for her to make it out of there alive. I wanted her to make it out, she had to. I wasn’t going to accept otherwise. Of course, I won’t divulge whether she did or not. You’ll have to find out yourself 😉

My only qualm is with the ending. It wasn’t satisfying for me, but as you know, I’m very particular about endings!

There are a lot of similarities between Wildthorn and Eleanor, which I am happy to see. I think Wildthorn will make a fantastic addition to my comps list for when I submit to agents and publishers.

Be sure to get yourself a copy, and tell your friends. Wildthorn is a must read!

I rate this book a Wuthering Heights.

The scale:
10. Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
9. Wormwood: A Drama of Paris – Marie Corelli
8. Tess of the d’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
7. Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier
6. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – J.K. Rowling
5. Fox in Socks – Dr. Seuss
4. The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown
3. The Catcher in the Rye J. D. Salinger
2. Dune – Frank Herbert
1. Fallen – Lauren Kate
0. 50 Shades of Grey – E. L. James

Read more about the scale here

Anyway…
I didn’t actually mean for this post to turn into a review like that, I just had a lot to say about the book. I probably have a lot more to say, but maybe I’ll save that until later.

What was I actually going to talk about? I can’t remember. You know what, fine. This can be a review post, haha!

Historical fiction: Research

I know a lot of people, myself included, who have said that they feel like they belong in another period of time. Yes, I feel that at times. All the time. Absolutely. I think the idea of being, say in 19thC London, away from the thrall of Facebook (and away from the evil trolls who frequent it), could mean me spending more time… focusing on my pox-ridden body.

And that is the reality. We probably couldn’t manage living in those times. We romanticise it because of people like Mr. Darcy, but the truth is that we would likely be those people lying in the streets, struggling to survive because illegal immigrants like Heathcliff have taken our jobs!

Also, let’s not forget how women couldn’t vote, women were property, women couldn’t own property (unless they were lucky enough to be in a family with no males), and so on and so forth. So, if you were a guy, things might be all right for you then. That is, if you weren’t poor!

This brings me to the next subject of focus in my historical fiction blog posts: research.

In my ideal historical fiction, is a realistic (and honest) portrayal of the setting and lifestyle of the period. But even writers like Jane Austen weren’t that honest, and she lived in those times! It was all very pretty, the idea that we could choose who we wanted to marry, but that really wasn’t true. Marriage was for social or financial benefit. And for that reason, Mr. Collins is the most realistic character in Pride and Prejudice. He might be boorish and ugly, but he is realistic.

But really, Mr. Darcy. What a hunk of a man! Or was he?

I imagined Jennifer Ehle (of the BBC’s miniseries Pride and Prejudice) was a more realistic portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet than Keira Knightly (in both physique and acting ability!), but I never questioned whether Colin Firth or Matthew Macfadyen were realistic portrayals of Mr. Darcy.

Keep in mind, it’s never a good idea to challenge the romantic image of Mr. Darcy as he has been conveyed in film and television. Women will come at you with pitchforks! But, I came across a number of articles looking at that very idea, and I’ve come to the single conclusion:

We’ve been lied to!

A study, conducted by Professor John Sutherland of University College, London (where Eleanor attends, by the way), revealed that “the revered Darcy would have had powdered white hair, a pointy chin, a pale complexion, a long nose and sloping shoulders. Not quite the brooding, chiselled chap portrayed on-screen by modern-day actors” (Thompson). Feeling heartbroken yet? Go ahead and read more.

“That’s all well and good, Cadence,” you might say “but that was in the film, not the novel.”

“Well,” I would respond. “please let me explain.”

Mr. Darcy is described by Austen as “handsomer than Mr. Bingley” (8), which is interesting considering the unappetising description given by University College, London’s study. And so, the “brooding, chiselled chap” in Pride and Prejudice is probably just as brooding and chiselled as The Marquis de Sade!

feb15_g01_marquisdesade.jpg__600x0_q85_upscale
Fig. 1 Portrait of Sade (Smithsonian.com)

Geoffrey Rush was aptly chosen to represent Sade, in my opinion. Perhaps then he is the closest to Mr. Darcy? But I may be wrong. What do you think? Would you watch Rush as Darcy in the next Pride and Prejudice film? I know I would!

marquisshag
Fig. 2 Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade (Rushysgirl)

As readers, we aren’t given much to go with in terms of description — “fine, tall person, [with] handome features” (Austen 7) — and I imagine the BBC series and film have clouded our judgement and given us a biased image of the “handsomer than Mr. Bingley” Mr. Darcy.

But enough of Mr. Darcy, and his lies!

Emily Brontë offered us a much more detailed, and rich description of the brooding and chiselled Heathcliff. Nelly describes Heathcliff, upon his return:

He had grown a tall, athletic, well-formed man; beside whom, my master seemed quite slender and youth-like. His upright carriage suggested the idea of his having been in the army. His countenance was much older in expression and decision of feature than Mr. Linton’s; it looked intelligent, and retained no marks of further degradation. A half-civilised ferocity lurked yet in the depressed brows and eyes full of black fire, but it was subdued; and his manner was even dignified: quite divested of roughness, though too stern for grace (Brontë 69).

And upon their meeting, Mr. Lockwood describes Heathcliff as:

…a dark-skinned gypsy in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman: that is, as much a gentleman as many a country squire: rather slovenly, perhaps, yet not looking amiss with his negligence, because he has an erect and handsome figure; and rather morose (3).

Though, of course, our image of beauty changes with time. Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley will always adhere to our image of beauty because the description is lacking. We then see Pride and Prejudice as timeless, in that regard. The reader is able to create their own image of what beauty is, or should be.

So… should I be creating a detailed image of beauty (my own interpretation, or rather the depiction of beauty of 19thC London) or, instead, should I consider the readership’s desire for a timeless beauty?

To accommodate this need of the reader, and like Austen, I too have not given detailed descriptions of characters, such as Eleanor’s love interest, Mr. Ashwood. Yet, part of that stems from Eleanor’s own rebellion from her duty in finding a husband. She is more concerned with content of character, in a friend or confidant (who she sees Mr. Ashwood as). And therefore, does not consider his appearance too deeply.

What other novels do you feel have not been entirely honest with the reader?
Let me know in the comment section below.

What do we see in terms of historical fiction, however? In my experience, in my readings of historical fiction, the image of beauty has been altered by the author’s personal bias, and not “limited” to the standards as set by the period. If we can go back to Wuthering Heights, we see this with Heathcliff. Although the character is seen as dangerous, violent, exotic, and sometimes that is attributed to his mysterious origins and colour of his skin, Heathcliff is still considered beautiful when compared to Mr. Linton for example, who is perhaps more aligned to the true standard of beauty for that period.

So, what is beauty? Should we be challenging our own standards, or leaving it open to interpretation?

In my last historical fiction post, I mentioned how I am trying to be more open to the demand for a romanticised history, and I think I have done that in Eleanor, at least I hope so. For example, Eleanor’s young sister, Vivienne, falls in love with a man whom she knows nothing about. He is handsome, yes, but as Eleanor and Vivienne grew up without a mother, they were without that person to arrange marriages or find suitors for them (such as Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice), they’re now going in blind. Vivienne knows that she should find someone to free her from her financial problems, she believes she has found someone to do that, but it was essentially ‘love at first sight’, that compelled her to fall for the mysterious Mr. Winters.

Eleanor rejects the societal expectations of her sex, and embraces the possibility of living life as a spinster. She sees that as the fate of someone of her social standing (particularly after the death of her father, and considering her money woes), therefore she believes it right to accept her future now, and prepare for it. She would rather that fate than to marry without love.

Eleanor edited

And yet, all the while, Eleanor is faced with the question of what love truly is.

Getting sidetracked! The point is, Eleanor is well aware of the consequences of veering off the path meant for her, in search of another.

But, what were/are the biggest research issues in writing Eleanor?

  • Specifics about human anatomy, in terms of surgical procedures [both Henry (Mr. Ashwood) and Eleanor perform surgeries].
  • Language. Trying to make accurate dialogue for 19thC London, which entails looking at other works written of that time. But I also like to write pretentiously, so it’s pretty easy for me! 😉
  • Etiquette.

I recently happened upon a book on etiquette, which will perhaps be of the greatest help for me in terms of staying true to the lifestyle mannerisms of 19thC London. There are specific moments in Eleanor I have been uncertain of, and already this little book, Hints of etiquette: A shield against the vulgar (which contains, Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society: with a Glance at Bad Habits, 1842, and Hints for Etiquette; or, Dining out Made Easy, 1849) has answered a number of my questions. For instance, in regards to dancing.

I’m quite fond of this entry (on how not to be an arsehole!):

It has somewhere been observed that, ‘In good society, a tacit understanding exists that whatsoever conversation may take place shall be to a certain degree sacred, and may not honourably be carried out of it, and repeated to the prejudice of the utterer’ (Agogos, 68-69).

But, of course, I refer again to Eleanor and Vivienne’s naivety of such customs. It is a factor that surfaces again and again in the novel, and illustrates their poor decision making in some scenarios.

In regards to my issue with maintaining consistent and dated language… this is something I will delve into further in my historical fiction blog post concerning language. Most of the research was through reading, ultimately. That is probably the best advice out there — read, read, read!

In terms of my research of human anatomy…

Many universities have a program whereby members of the public can take full advantage of their libraries. This has been most beneficial to me, in particular with researching human anatomy. I often borrow books from a local university. And, as a former student with Curtin University, I am privileged enough to be able to continue using their library facilities both on-campus and online. That is just one of the many perks of choosing an education with them!

What is your research process?
Let me know in the comment section below.

I also attempted to research human anatomy and surgical procedures from videos. This is (or, would have been) something helpful for my research and writing process as I describe a particular procedure in Eleanor. Alas! I found it to be quite difficult viewing. Nausea was a problem! Instead, I had to rely on graphic images of the procedure from books and online. A book I found to be incredibly useful was, …. Wait, scratch that! I don’t really want to give it away. The specific surgical procedure is quite a pivotal plot point, so, just ignore this.

However, I will say that the late Dr. Clarendon (Eleanor’s father) was well-versed in human anatomy, as you know (he was a revered anatomist with University College, London), but his field of specialty, or at least his focus, was on the female reproductive system. He considered some theories like the ‘wandering womb’, for example. But, I will not go further. This is simply to illustrate an example of the research I have had to undertake for Eleanor.

I have so much more to say, but sadly this post is getting a little too long. Perhaps I will make a part 2, but for now, I will leave it as is. Feel free to message me, or comment below with your thoughts.

Please join me next time when I look at male characters in historical fiction.

What are your thoughts on historical fiction?
Who are your favourite authors?
Let me know in the comment section below.


Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York and London, 2001. Print.
Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Wordsworth Editions Ltd: Hertfordshire, 1992. Print.
“Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade” Image. Rushysgirl. 10 Sep. 2007. Web. Date accessed 5 June 2015.
“Portrait of Sade” Image. Smithsonian.com Feb. 2015. Web. Date accessed 10 Apr. 2017.
Thompson, Rachel. “This is what Mr. Darcy would have actually looked like – and it’s not pretty“. Mashable. 9 Feb. 2017. Web. Date accessed 18 Mar. 2017.

Writing historical fiction – the pros, the cons, the heartaches

I’ve always had a fondness for historical fiction, and I’ve particularly admired the commitment and the lengths writers go to, to create the perfect story in our world.

Over the coming weeks, I will be examining a different element in creating historical fiction. These will include: setting, character development, and research, just to name a few.

Each blog post will be concerning issues I have faced, and how I overcame them (or plan to overcome them).

I am by no means an expert. I merely wish to share my personal experiences with the genre, my likes, dislikes, and the highs and lows of my writing process for my first historical novel, Eleanor.


Is there a formula for creating these worlds? How deep do writers need to go, in their research, to ensure their reader is completely immersed in these worlds?


These are just some of the questions I am trying to answer in my quest in completing Eleanor.

Eleanor editedAfter having fallen in love with a number of historical novels, I knew that I wanted to write my own. I can’t remember where I got the initial idea for Eleanor. It was simply a desire to write the un-romantic Romantic. I wanted ugliness, darkness, and to be as near to the raw, unbridled, reality of nineteenth-century England as possible.

One of my biggest concerns with historical fiction is the tendency for some writers to romanticise the period they are working in. And, yes it is fiction, and though I confess I sometimes have the desire to read the romanticised version of history, it is not real. I prefer the raw, unabridged version, including all the ugly parts of history. I want something as true to life as possible, I suppose. Otherwise I feel like I’m being lied to about what life in those times was truly like.

Perhaps I should stick to non-fiction then?

You know I am a pessimist, and you know that I prefer to read novels with sad endings, because I believe they are more realistic… perhaps that is why I need an historical fiction with that darkness.

That may sound contradictory when last time I talked nonstop about my love for purple prose, but if you remember: anything can be made beautiful with purple prose.

Ugliness, darkness, reality; they can be written beautifully. (Beautiful writing or purple prose does not always imply ‘happy’). We can see it in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Wuthering Heights, and Adam Bede, as just some examples. In historical fiction, we can see it in Rebel Heiress.

Lady of the Butterflies

I instantly fell in love with Fiona Mountain’s Rebel Heiress (also published as Lady of the Butterflies) when I read it a number of years ago. This is one of my favourite historical novels. There is romance, yes, but there is sadness, rejection, and isolation too, because that is an inevitability of life. You cannot escape the darkness of the world. I loved the ending, and though I confess I would have liked to see something more definitive, or to see the heroine be with her love interest, it was a realistic ending. The fact that it went against my expectations (because I always assume there will be a happy ending), I loved that even more. I highly recommend this book, and… sorry for the spoilers, haha!

It just seems that characters in a lot of our literary worlds have a pretty good spell of luck. I don’t see many heroes dying of the plague, or women dying in childbirth. And that’s where I’ve found a love in Bernard Cornwell. He tells it like it was!


Can you steer me in the right direction? What should I be reading?
What should I be avoiding?

Next book in the queue is The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman. I’ve heard great things, so I’m looking forward to it.

light between oceans


For Eleanor, I am trying to be more accepting of the fact that readers love the romanticisation of history, but I want to add the ugliness of reality too. For instance, I don’t think I’ve come across a book that has described the common difficulty in bathing. A simple act today (for most parts of the world), but as you can imagine, without running water it would have been a pain in the arse. That is something that has come up in Eleanor, in a very minor way. Really, it’s about balancing historical accuracy with an interesting narrative. I don’t need someone to give expert knowledge in the area of Victorian bathing, but it gets hard imagining a world where it seems no one takes the time to use the facilities. Like in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (apparently I’ll use any excuse to reference my favourite game!). Sometimes I wish Geralt would at least stop fighting monsters for a minute to avail himself toilet-wards. I have video footage of a NPC doing it, but Geralt’s too good to pee on a tree obviously!

Paint me a picture, historical fiction writers! Your characters can’t always be smelling nice when their last bathing was a year ago! It’s hard to imagine the hero or heroine being romanced when they stink. Maybe they wear a lot of perfume as compensation?

For my love of The Marquis de Sade, I am completely free to dabble in the darkness. His life was lavish, decadent, toxic, and miserable. There isn’t much argument for adding romance in there, but… perhaps I could? Why not romanticise a horrible man? We romanticise the abusive Christian Grey. It then stands to reason that Sade could be romanticised too. Forcing women to take aphrodisiacs (Spanish fly), pouring hot wax on their bodies, and whipping them; there is a familiarity there, I’m sure 😉

Though I prefer to be ethical, historical fiction is, well, fiction.

Sade the coward? Never! He single-handedly broke out of the Bastille to save Marie Antoinette, his long-time admirer, from the guillotine. History won’t tell you that, but it’s true! He then married her, ‘cos, you know… facts.

So there’s the love story! Sade and Antoinette: A Forbidden Love © 2016 (patent pending).

I’m starting right now! Come on, it could work. You’re just jealous because I thought of it first! I’ll even stick a copyright symbol on it, to be sure.

I enjoy studying Sade’s life, and do also enjoy writing academic papers on him and his works, but I would love to write a fictional creative piece. I have started on a few. Feel free to check out my short piece, Letter to the Marquise.

Although his life was incredibly depressing, it was still really interesting. If someone could write a biography of his life in narrative form… that would be amazing! That’s something I want, and maybe something I’ll try myself.

Now, I shall take my leave because once again my thoughts are getting distracted and I don’t know where to end.

Please join me next time when I look at research for historical fiction.


What are your thoughts on historical fiction?
Who are your favourite authors?
Let me know in the comment section below.

In defence of purple prose

I’ve been writing for a number of years now, but it was only recently that I heard the term, “purple prose“. Ever since then, I’ve heard it cop a lot of flak and I didn’t (and still don’t) understand why.

But firstly… what is “purple prose”?
Purple prose is a literary term used to refer to writing that is considered “flowery”, “ornate”, “decadent”, “elaborate” (and other synonyms).
(“Beige prose” falls on the other end of the spectrum, both in nature and in colour.)

purple typewriter2
But, how exactly does purple prose differ from what is considered normal or plain prose? Is the normal, or acceptable, prose a weird combination of the colours then? If you’re a fan of this beigey-purple taupe prose, then that’s great. I’m totally on board. I love a healthy mix of the two as well. I simply want readers (and authors) to give purple prose a chance. Ask yourself why you dislike it. Is it a matter that you prefer plain prose, or is it the reputation purple prose has earned that is the basis for your utter disdain?

I have been told I write purple prose, and I have taken it as nothing else but a compliment. As a big fan of Romantic or Gothic style literature, I love emotive, descriptive, flowery writing. I have never considered it “over the top”, but a lot of people do. So this is where I cannot help but wonder, why is purple prose bad and where is the line drawn?

purple quill image
In my search for answers, I came across a paper entitled, “In Defense of Purple Prose” — a coincidence, I assure you! — and one particular part stood out to me:

“Certain producers of plain prose have conned the reading public into believing that only in prose plain, humdrum or flat can you articulate the mind of inarticulate ordinary Joe … This minimalist vogue depends on the premise that only an almost invisible style can be sincere, honest, moving, sensitive and so forth, whereas prose that draws attention to itself by being revved up, ample, intense, incandescent or flamboyant turns its back on something almost holy – the human bond with ordinariness” (West).

So, does this mean purple prose isn’t actually bad, but simply has earnt a bad reputation?

I find West’s argument very interesting considering there is a theory that “purple prose” is seen as pretentious, or reserved only for a particular audience, and… is simply “wrong”. I hear more arguments of purple prose being elitist, than arguments of plain prose being lazy. As a reader, I want imagery, I want to be challenged, I want to be stimulated, I want to be immersed into the story, and I want to think, “Holy shit! That is amazing writing!” I want more than just a story. I find novels with purple prose able to tick all these and more.

Writing is one of those mediums where you can do no wrong. There may be some things that will make publishing difficult (James Joyce’s 100-word sentence may not take to a modern reader, and almost certainly wouldn’t be published today), or may turn readers off (change of tense/change of P.O.V.), but really, writing is flexible. Novels should have no formulae, especially not in how the prose is written. The most common piece of advice I hear is:

Write what you like.
And… you will find others that like it too.

To simply say that purple prose is “wrong” is kind of narrow-minded, in my opinion. And to completely dismiss a work because of purple prose is unfair. The most wonderful thing about purple prose is that anything can be made beautiful. I’m sure there is a writer out there that can even make doing one’s taxes sound exotic.

The problem is that all forms of purple prose are lumped together, whether they be good, bad, or ugly.

I have no qualm with minimalist writing. It is not my personal preference, but I won’t turn a book down because of it. I am currently reading a novel however that is very minimalist, so much so that there have been times where I couldn’t pin point where the characters were. “Floating heads” is the term, I believe (and I have certainly been guilty of that!). Anyway, this novel, which I won’t name, is really pushing me. I don’t usually give up on a novel, but I’m heading there. As I said, I’m fine with minimalist writing, but I feel like I need to be compensated in some way, for the loss of purple prose. I need a damn good story and plot! And no floating heads!

I need more beigey-purple taupe prose at the very least.

So, are the works of the 19th century, the Romantic/Gothic literary style, dead? Are modern readers more interested in plain prose or minimalist writing?

I do believe that perhaps the addition of purple prose could have saved some of E.L. James’ descriptive writing. I know she is considered a “God” to some of you, but could you please put your pitchforks down for a minute? James certainly opened up the erotic fiction genre (although I do have some qualms with her methods), absolutely, but it would be great if we could at least agree on one thing: her writing is pretty poor.

“Now I know what all the fuss is about. Two orgasms – coming apart at the seams, like the spin cycle on a washing machine, wow.”

This is probably one of the most famous “bad” (or “funny”, depending on your perspective) lines of 50 Shades of Grey. This kind of descriptive writing is typical of “beige prose”, and could be saved with some purple. The writer should be more attentive to descriptive language so the reader can visualise everything. The use of “washing machine” is also very “beige”. It is boring, it is mechanical, it is cold. Some more decorative language could win me over.

West continues with a question that I think is truly valid,
“How many prose writers can you identify from their style?”

Just like you can pick up a Smashing Pumpkins song from their style, or a fashion designer, so too should you be able to pick up an author from their style of writing, at least I believe so. When I’m reading Marie Corelli or Lilith Saintcrow, I know I’m reading them. Lilith Saintcrow may be upset that I call her writing purple prose, as many authors find it a terrible thing, but I consider hers to be the definition, or my definition of “purple prose”. The A Tale of Beauty and Madness series is a great example.

nameless  wayfarer2  kin

If not “purple”, then definitely a shade darker from the “beigey-purple taupe”. Corelli and Saintcrow have a very unique style and that’s why I keep coming back to them. Well, not Marie Corelli as she is quite dead, unfortunately. But the book I’m reading now? Anyone could have written it, in my opinion. There is no unique style. And that book is what I would label “beige” or plain prose.


What is your definition of “purple prose”? Where is the line drawn, do you think? Which authors do you consider “purple” and which do you consider “beige”?
What are your thoughts?

Let me know in the comment section below.


I recently came across an argument regarding the use of purple prose. It was said that purple prose is essentially the reader describing the story as if it were a movie. Every minute detail, dramatic action, and so on described. That is certainly an interesting point. I agree that being overly descriptive (ie giving too much unnecessary information) can be an issue, but I see a distinction between that and emotive, flowery writing. I would also like to argue that, to me, it is the minimalist writing or “beige” prose that comes across more as a film or transcript. This, of course, is not meant to be a generalisation. I am speaking from my experience as a reader. I have read novels that have been absent of action, emotive and descriptive writing altogether. It reads like a transcript because it is simply dialogue. (Dialogue-heavy books aren’t my thing, keep in mind.) But I like the idea of a book being so detailed that I can picture it with ease. They say that books are better than their film counterparts. If it is merely dialogue, I can take the film at face value, and I don’t like that.


I like my writing. Not everyone will, I know that. I also know that I can go over the top, but I do my best to rein it in. That doesn’t mean I will give up purple prose to do that though.


It is difficult finding modern books that I love. I essentially want Romantic/Gothic works, complete with 19th-century language and style. There are only so many novels out there that meet my needs. I hate to be so fussy, but I’m running out of Brontë, Corelli, Le Fanu, Radcliffe, and others. If they weren’t so dead, that would be fine, then I could bug them relentlessly.

I’ve bought a lot of anthologies, such as The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women, in the hopes of getting a taste of what I’ve been craving for years. And I do find some, but I want more!

So please, writers out there, I implore you. Give purple prose another chance. I’ll love you for it ❤

ghost stories

Give me beautiful, give me sublime. Give me purple prose!


Know an author I’ll love? Are you one of them? Let me know in the comment section or send me a message. I want to read your works!


James, E.L. Fifty Shades of Grey. London: Arrow Books, 2012. Print.
West, Paul. “In Defense of Purple Prose.” The New York Times. 15 Dec. 1985. Accessed 11 March 2017.
Image credits: NeOld and blogylana

The Treatment – a review (spoilers)

The Treatment by Suzanne Young

This will be a long review (or essay)… but I have so much I want to discuss!

The Treatment, by Suzanne Young, picks up where The Program left off. Being agonisingly left on tenterhooks by the first novel, I made sure I had the sequel in my hands days after finishing the first.

Check out my review of The Program for a quick recap. If you’re way too impatient…

The Program follows Sloane as she fights to avoid the clutches of the Program, which aims to “cure” her of her depression. The cure involves removing all memories the Program believes to be a threat to a person’s well-being. Despite all her efforts, she was eventually flagged after her boyfriend, James, was taken. All her depressing memories were erased, including those of James, who the Program believed to be a critical reason for her depression.

Against the odds, Sloane and James found each other and recovered a few key memories. They proved as a threat to the Program and its success, and have been on the run ever since.

Back to The Treatment

Sloane and James are still on the run from the Program. They are deprived of their memories, however they now have possession of the Treatment, a pill which has the power to restore all memories. But, they only have one.

While on the run, Sloane and James are constantly plagued with the burden of the Treatment. Does Sloane take it, or James? Or do they hold onto it in the hopes of it being replicated?

To me, I thought the answer was pretty obvious: have the pill replicated. But I never could comprehend the mentality behind their decision making. They didn’t want to remember, they wanted to live in the now, and remember only the events since the Program. Why?

The Treatment by Suzanne Young

The first novel ended with a few things I thought would be explored more in the sequel. For example, the epidemic was spreading, affecting adults, not only teens. Such themes, to my disappointment, were not addressed in this novel.

In The Treatment, just as many if not more questions are left unanswered. The reason behind the suicide epidemic starting? An answer is offered, one that sounds more and more like Suicide Club (a girl suffering from depression seemingly convinces her friends to kill themselves together with her), but the answer is dispelled just as quickly as it is offered: “The Program is breeding suicide” (319). The constant fear of being admitted into the Program drives teens to depression. So, was there ever an epidemic?

Forgiving the mother
Sloane seems to forgive her mother, at least after some hesitation and therapy, for admitting her into the Program. I think she had to forgive her mother. If Sloane had taken the Treatment (as she contemplated), then she never would have forgiven her mother, because her mother was the greater evil. Greater than the Program. Not knowing what she lost of herself in the Program makes it easier for her to forgive, because she is of the belief that her old life was full of so much pain, enough at least to warrant treatment. The new Sloane may believe her mother’s choice was for the best. That, and having James’ memories to help, builds the foundation for a closer relationship.

Lobotomies
The one thing that confuses me most about this novel is the lobotomy. Not the why, but the how. Specifically, how did the Program manage to get permission to perform such a treatment on minors? Was that part of the admission stage? Because that itself raises more questions. As I understand the process:
1. You can be admitted to the Program by a parent/legal guardian, or
2. The Program just snatches up at-risk teens.
Concerning 1., so the parents sign a waiver, or give permission for any treatment to be made, including invasive and dangerous procedures like a lobotomy?
Concerning 2., how is permission, of any kind, granted? They are minors. Do they belong to the State? Do they seek parent’s permission? Can a parent refuse? (Both the lobotomy and/or the Program altogether.) Perhaps this was answered in the first novel, to my recollection it wasn’t. I am open to debate.

Perhaps in the world of the narrative, the Program does not need permission?

Roger
How the hell did he get the job as a handler? Why was he offered the Treatment by Dr. Evelyn Valentine? Was he a playful little kitten before he turned evil?

Realm
Bloody coward! Instead of giving Sloane the option of taking the pill (and leaving fate in her hands), along with all his cryptic messages about whether or not she’d forgive him, why not instead just tell her the truth about who he is? I would have kicked him in the boingloings!

bd925a818cde9328406559cb281cffaa716a7fe718ae120251d6981d90504ab9

If you’ve experienced betrayal, you’ve experienced the worst feeling in the world — unforgivable — and I completely understand Sloane not wanting to speak to him again.

The ending
Part of me is disappointed the ending was not a sad one. With a story/plot such as this, I couldn’t believe the ending would be anything but sad. I was waiting for a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-type ending.

I won’t lie though, I wanted those crazy kids to make it out of there, but the realist, the pessimist, in me didn’t believe it to be possible. The orchestration of the escape (right before Sloane’s lobotomy) seemed too smooth.

Enough about the story.

The writing
I was certainly not disappointed by Young’s style. As I mentioned in my review for The Program, I thought her writing was beautiful but unembellished, and complemented by gorgeous imagery. Even when it was macabre it was gorgeous, for instance how Realm talks of his suicide attempt.

One of the most beautiful, yet sad lines in the novel is when Sloane ponders whether she is “just a replacement of the girl [she] used to be” (75). It also sounded like a nod to Young’s other series concerning the Program, The Remedy. But, it’s when Dr. Arthur Pritchard comments on the reality of human nature, that I get a chill down my spine: “Human beings are cruel creatures. And what we don’t understand, we tamper with until we destroy it” (133).

Revelation
A revelation just hit me: the Program seeks to rid sympathy and empathy. Sloane and James (all characters for that matter) try so hard not to let depression conquer them, they forbid themselves from crying, from feeling what is most natural — sympathy; a capacity to understand. When one hears sad news, the other stops themselves from feeling lest they should be considered ‘at-risk’.

It is heartbreaking to imagine that ‘normalcy’ means being deprived of sympathy or empathy.

I rate this book a Fox in Socks.

The scale:
10. Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
9. Wormwood: A Drama of Paris – Marie Corelli
8. Tess of the d’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
7. Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier
6. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – J.K. Rowling
5. Fox in Socks – Dr. Seuss
4. The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown
3. The Catcher in the Rye J. D. Salinger
2. Dune – Frank Herbert
1. Fallen – Lauren Kate
0. 50 Shades of Grey – E. L. James

Read more about the scale here