I like to think of my books as offering intelligent escapism. While I write about past times I try to do so in a way that people today can identify with – posing the kinds of dilemmas and problems, challenges and triumphs that are relevant today – even though the way we respond to them may be different and subject to the prevailing cultural and social mores.
When I started writing novels, I found myself drawn to past times and distant places. This was not a conscious decision. The first book I wrote just happened to be set in the 1920s and I discovered I liked and felt comfortable with writing about the past.
One of the things that used to put me off reading historical fiction was the way some books were poorly researched or anachronistic while others were true to the period but felt irrelevant to the kinds of concerns I was interested in and the life I led. I wanted to avoid swooning heroines being restored by smelling salts before falling into a waiting hero’s arms. Bodkins and bodices just aren’t my thing.
In my writing I try to place my characters into situations that my readers today could face themselves or at least identify with. The things that can happen between men and women today – falling in love, marrying someone you don’t love, rape, unwanted pregnancy, infertility, domestic violence, to give a few examples – have always happened since people lived in caves, but men and women in the past had very different ways of dealing with them. In the most part the odds have been heavily stacked in favour of men. Women often had little choice and frequently a complete absence of advice and support in handling these things.
There is often a temptation for authors to gift their characters with twenty-first century sensibilities and behaviours. This is understandable as many readers expect it. They want kick-ass women who behave in the nineteenth century as if they were from the twenty-first. One of the things I get cross about is the assumption that all heroines have to be feisty. I prefer to have heroines with more rounded characters – having to respond to the challenges that life presents them, but doing so in ways that were achievable in the period in which they lived.
I love the idea of throwing real tough challenges at women who are bound by the constraints of the times – a lack of financial means and independence, the expectations of society, and often the control of husbands or fathers whom they rely upon to survive. I also like my characters to be flawed and make mistakes along the way.
A young woman today faced with an unwanted pregnancy has a wealth of resources available to her – and at least here and in most of Europe the right to choose. Having children out of wedlock is no longer a source of shame and should a woman decide to take the path of single parenthood, she will be far from unusual and will have access to a variety of support networks, often including her parents and the state.
A girl from a Victorian middle class background would have no one to help her, to offer advice, to present her with alternatives. The most likely outcome would be to be cast out in disgrace, sent away to have the child in secret, forced to give the child for adoption and possibly be herself incarcerated in a mad house for the rest of her life. While a teenager today doesn’t risk incarceration, shame and disgrace, discovering she’s unexpectedly pregnant can be just as terrifying.
The dilemma facing my main character, Hephzibah Wildman in The Green Ribbons is that unless she can produce an heir, the husband she loves is likely to be disinherited by his father. While that specific circumstance is not a common one today, women can still face terrible choices to save a marriage. The question Hephzibah must answer is how far is she prepared to go to save her marriage? Even to the extent of having a child with another man?
That is a dilemma that may appear extreme in today’s world of fertility treatments but there are still plenty of women who have raised children that were fathered by someone other than their husband – and kept it secret from all concerned. The interesting thing for me in Hephzibah’s case is not the secret adultery but the conscious choice to do it in the conviction that she is doing it out of love.
Another element of The Green Ribbons that is as relevant today as then is the phenomenon of falling in love with someone completely out of the blue who you have never before seen that way. I have always found this a fascinating topic. As someone who went through her teens and twenties immediately assessing (and mostly dismissing!) every single man I met as a possible partner, it used to strike me as odd when in books/ movies/ real life a couple who’d known each other for years suddenly realise they are madly in love. And yet it happens so often – as though a switch is flicked on and you see the other person in a completely different light. In Hephzibah’s case she is drawn towards someone who appears exotic and different rather than the person with whom she would have most in common.
Another challenge for Hephzibah in The Green Ribbons is dealing with a sexually predatory employer. Alas, as a governess in 1900, she has no HR department to call upon and no recourse to a union to fight her corner.
So, while drawn to modern themes, setting them in historical periods makes them more interesting to me as a writer. It offers constraints that I find encourage creativity. I used to work for an innovation company and found that the best ideas often arise from having boundaries within which to work. I also love the research that is the essential accompaniment to writing about another era. But the essence behind the stories I tell is human behaviour – character – and how it responds to the challenges life throws up – whatever the era.
Eastbourne-based and Liverpool-born author Clare Flynn has lived all over the world and is the co-founder of the popular website makeitandmendit.com. The Green Ribbons is her fourth novel.
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