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Monday, August 17, 2020

Unconventional Heroines and Women of Destiny, Part Two

 This is a continuation of last month’s post, talking with Prairie Rose authors C. A. Asbrey, Mary Sheeran, and myself about our unconventional heroines.

 Have you had to explain to readers or potential readers either that your character’s situation was possible in her time or unusual?  In other words, what kinds of assumptions might your readers have had? 

 Christine:  Definitely. I’ve had people tell me time and time again that there were no female Pinkertons in the 19th century, or tell me that there was only one – Kate Warne. On the whole though, readers have been very positive about finding out that these women not only existed, but were skilled and brave. I have to be realistic about the fact that I deliberately chose a role most people didn’t know existed at that time though, or that Abigail’s success was predicated on the element of surprise.  Once the readers accept the idea that female Pinkertons existed, most of the disbelief centers around the fact that they were disbanded as soon as Alan Pinkerton died, despite being very successful. That single piece of information speaks to the sexism of the time far more that surprise at their existence at all. 

One thing I think has surprised people is the forensics of the time, and that the detectives had to perform their own tests. Many readers have commented on enjoying the characters’ hands-on approach to the investigation, and the details of the tests themselves.  I also enjoy introducing readers to the spy techniques, and gadgets used in the 19th century, especially those which were invented much earlier than people think. Many of the readers have no idea about this early technology, and it’s novel to them to see it in use. Readers tell me that they enjoy seeing the nuts and bolts of the investigative techniques, and that there were more skills around in the 19th century than they were previously aware of.          

Cate:  Yes, I always have to explain that there actually were women lawyers in the United States in the 19th century, which is much earlier than people generally imagine.  Arabella Mansfield of Iowa was admitted to the bar in 1869, and over the next three decades, there was a cascade effect throughout the various states and territories.   I used to show my students the concurrence from the 1872 U.S. Supreme Court case, Bradwell v. Illinois, in which Mrs. Myra Bradwell was denied admission to her state bar on the “separate spheres” argument that women belonged in the home.  Illinois changed its law a few years later, to specifically allow women attorneys.  Also, Mrs. Bradwell’s sponsor for bar admission was her husband, who clearly wasn’t buying the whole separate spheres thing.

Mary:  I haven't had to explain anything to readers - I haven't been able to meet with any! There are reviews up from people I don't know, and from what they've written, they like her as a pioneer in her field and for being a strong woman. They give her more credit for her independence than I think I do.

 For all three of us, our heroines have something in common with us professionally:  I used to be a lawyer, Mary was (and still is) a musician, and Christine was in law enforcement.  How were you able to draw on your own experience for your character?  How did the time period make it different?

Cate: Anna and I have some things in common – she reads many of the books I read over the course of my PhD in 19th century literature – but we’re very different.  I went to law school out of a misguided sense of practicality, and hated it.  I graduated in 1988 and lasted in practice for three years, then started planning to return to graduate school.  My law school class was about half women, but there were still barriers in the profession.  At least in the larger big city law firms, women are hired in significant numbers, but make partner far less frequently than men do.

Anna, on the other hand, loves being a lawyer.  Perhaps writing her is wish fulfillment, or it’s working through my own personal shortcomings?  She’s willing to put in the hours, she has no problem with balancing courtroom aggression with a ladylike demeanor, and she never backs down.  Maybe not even when she should.  Working with her father, she learned how honorable the profession could be, but also its problems.  Anna learned how to make hard choices, which serves her in good stead over the course of the story.  And her chief rival, Nick Powell, has taught her to hone her verbal sparring skills.  Because she practices in a small town where she knows everyone, many of her cases are very personal to her, and she thinks of what she does as helping people.  She puts her idealism into action, especially in representing people who wouldn’t be able to afford her, but whose situations seem important to her.  Her work with several of the Native nations is important to her, as well.  But she takes on commercial clients, as well, in order to pay the bills.

Mary:  Aside from studying piano for two years with Miss Winkler? I keep intending to study piano again. When the quarantine started, I bought a keyboard and I've played around on it a bit, but mostly, it's gathering dust.

I have mostly lived in the 19th century's music. I took some time with 20th century music with some recitals, and I was doing cabaret shows with the Great American Songbook, but I've mostly sung 19th century music - operas, recitals, music hall tunes - and listened to 19th century music almost all the time. I started listening to the piano repertory years ago when I was working on my first book, Who Have the Power. Here's the thing. I sing. Why don't my heroines sing? I love listening to the piano and sing along, maybe that's it?

I think I do carry my singing into my approach to Elisabeth's playing. I have to absorb the music to understand how she feels about it and what her approach would be. I listen to pianists - I watch them on Youtube - what a great tool that is. I look at scores and read about keyboard music - approaches to different composers. And there's a lovely book by a young woman who in the 1870s went to Europe to study with Liszt and others - the very charming Amy Fay. That contemporary historian of 19th century pianists wrote condescendingly about her, and one doesn't know if she was good or no, but from what I can read between the lines in her memoir, she was quite good and also lots of fun. Unlike Elisabeth, no one was out to kill Amy Fay, though, so she could have plenty of fun. 

Christine:  I’m not the first to write a female Pinkerton Detective by a long way, but I am the first, as far as I know, to have done a similar job, and to be one of the first generation of women to do exactly the same job as the men, and for the same rate of pay. Prior to the Equal Pay act in the UK, female officers did not perform the same job, or work the same shifts as the men. They were used in family matters, sexual offences, and in dealing with female offenders. The move to full equality caused pushback, and sexism, at all levels, and that gave me a personal insight into how these women must have been received, not to mention personal experience of the mindset required to persevere in that atmosphere, and I bring that to the characters I write.

I think the time period must have heightened that kickback, and research from the time does reveal complaints from male agents, as well as from the wives of agents. There is no question that the female agents would have been exposed to that. Victorian society was very unforgiving to women who stepped outside their expected roles. The women did not just drift in to look pretty and act as a courier to help a love-interest/family member as I had seen them represented. Their zeal for the work was vocational in its own right, and they were determined to justify the faith placed in them.   I was unable to find any documentation on how they handled that. However, I was able to bring my personal experience to bear, and some of the most sexist moments in the books are based on things which actually happened to me. There isn’t much and I didn’t want to dwell on that, but to concentrate on the plot.

I did do research into the S.O.E. agents, the female spies who went undercover into occupied Europe during WW2, as theirs was also an example of historical undercover work. They echoed the Pinkerton women in many ways. They also capitalized on the sexism of their opponents who underestimated the abilities of women. It challenged traditional images of the protectors and the protected, in the same way as the female Pinkertons did. Their dedication, and willingness to work alone, was observed in the same way as Pinkerton had almost eighty years before, and made the male and female agents equals in the field. They also owned, and used, their femininity as an advantage in their role – something which was not permitted in the social norms of the 19th century, or by working women in the 20th century.  

Unsurprisingly, I found a lot of parallels between the way a woman’s character, or perceived lack of it, impacted on her more than their male counterparts. Female agents, and early female police officers, were expected to be above, whilst simultaneously tolerating, bawdy, risqué, and crude behavior in a way which men were not. There was more speculation on their sex lives, or lack of it, than on any of the men.

I think a first-hand understanding of a world very similar to theirs has allowed to me to capture the line they negotiated every day, and the personality-type who can live there. And, yes, I think that the observation on their dedication was correct, as they had to work harder, overcome more obstacles, and be better qualified than their male counterparts just to get there at all. 

If you haven't yet read Courting Anna, A Dangerous Liberty, or The Innocents Mystery Series, there's no time like the present!  I've love to continue the conversation with other Prairie Rose authors about their unconventional heroines -- leave a comment below and let's talk.     


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  1. Replies
    1. It was so much fun doing them -- I love to hear about what other people are thinking about their own writing!

  2. It's really interesting to see the parallels, as well as the differences, between these strong female characters. One thing they all have in common, in fiction and in real life, is a strong, forward-thinking man supporting them.

  3. Which is what I hated about the conclusion of the TV version of The Alienist: Angel of Darkness. It doesn't have to be an either-or. Women have choices.

  4. Agreed, Cate. I like strong partnerships between women and men in romance

    1. Absolutely. I know things have changed a lot, and that's why women who are historical outliers appeal to us now -- but also, history shows us that they always existed, which suggests that the stories we were being told weren't the whole thing.