Saturday, April 7, 2012
A Bold Heroine in the Georgian Era
Our guest’s Lady Fan mysteries, set in Georgian England, feature the bright and perceptive Ottilia, once a lady's companion and now bride to Lord Francis Fanshawe. The first in the series, The Gilded Shroud, is followed this month by The Deathly Portent. Everyone who leaves a comment this weekend will be entered in a drawing for a free copy of the new book.
by Elizabeth Bailey
How can the female detective cope in the Georgian world?
The short answer is, she can’t, not on her own. Ottilia’s status as a lady of the genteel classes precludes her presence in a great many male-dominated domains, especially if she is unescorted. A female alone in a public place laid herself open both to annoyance and loss of reputation.
Ottilia flouts convention in that she investigates at all. Ladies did not commonly examine dead bodies and question anyone and everyone from upstairs or down as to their movements and motives. People are apt to remark upon these activities, which amuses Ottilia, but tends to put Francis on the defensive.
But Ottilia is not a woman who seeks notoriety by ignoring the rules from a spirit of rebellion. She does it for expedience when nothing else will do. Where she can, she will obey the dictates of society, even if the necessity chafes her. Indeed, she is unscrupulous in making demands upon her husband for assistance in order to get around the problems posed by the constraints of her sex.
Even in the real Georgian era, it is not inconceivable that a woman might absorb medical lore as Ottilia does from her brother, although she is barred from the profession herself. This gives her a solid advantage, but it is the only practical one. For the rest, she must rely on her intelligence, observational skills and her knack of falling easily into intimacy with strangers, whether high or low born.
There are advantages in the paucity of policing during these times, because Ottilia is unhampered by the authority network that your modern amateur sleuth must negotiate. She finds it relatively easy to bypass, or even to use the local authority for her own ends, and if she has to, she is determined enough to go head to head with anyone.
But Ottilia herself recognizes that she couldn’t conduct her investigations without Francis at her back. Apart from the clear usefulness of his sex, he is both companion and stalwart supporter, and is rapidly gaining his own foothold in the game of deduction.
As the writer, I’m familiar with the period from my historical romances, but crime has added new challenges in terms of juggling the freedoms and restrictions imposed by the age, which I have to say I enjoy tremendously. Perhaps it satisfies a little of the rebel in me who burned the bra along with Germaine Greer! To give a woman power at a time when this was socially denied is intensely satisfying.
I’m often asked why the Georgian era attracted me, and it stems purely from a teenage addiction to Georgette Heyer. I think I absorbed from her the idea of creating a flavour of the time in the prose style I use for my own historicals, rather than relying on contemporary dialogue to delineate the period.
It’s more a question of choosing a way of expressing something that feels right for the period. For example, rather than using the simple she liked I might use she favoured or she was partial to. I pick less colloquial language: hastened, whither, I am inclined to think, if you are minded, is it not, befriend, etc. Then when you add all the titles and the accents of the lower orders, it tends to hold together. I’m so used to writing in this way that I no longer consciously make these choices. It’s as though I turn on a Georgian-speak switch in my writing head.
Of course it still has to be readable and understandable to the modern ear. To use fully contemporary dialogue - as found in 18th century letters and diaries, for instance - would sound stilted today. You don’t want to echo the long-winded Victorians which can be tough on readers now, but you still want to evoke the era.
I like to think that Ottilia is as true to her time, despite its inconveniences, as it is possible to be without alienating a modern reader. As a writer, I find I have to tread a fine balance between what might, to a purist, be considered anachronistic and what serves to take a reader, replete with twenty-first century thinking and values, successfully on a journey into the past.
Elizabeth Bailey’s second novel in her Lady Fan Mystery Series, The Deathly Portent, comes out in April in the US and June in the UK. Leave a comment this weekend and you'll be entered in a drawing for a free copy.
In The Deathly Portent, the blacksmith has been bludgeoned to death and the villagers blame the local witch, a girl with second sight. The Fanshawes have broken down on the road nearby and when Ottilia hears the news, she cajoles Francis into going to Witherley, where a full-blown investigation leads her into personal danger before she can find out the perpetrator. More details at www.elizabethbailey.co.uk. Order the book at www.amazon.com/Deathly-Portent-Lady-Fan-Mystery/dp/0425245675.