Writing Victorian Heroines

It is not easy to imagine how people behaved and thought in times gone by. A Victorian woman lived in a world far less like ours than we might expect. And for anyone hoping to write a heroic female Victorian lead this is both a problem and a wonderful creative challenge – with erotic writing throwing up further obstacles.

The Sexual Sorcery series of Victorian erotic novels are, in their plots, mysteries. And to solve a mystery we need heroes who can be proactive, who can sally forth into the world to investigate, challenge and if necessary fight against whatever crimes or conspiracies they are dealing with. But in a Victorian setting, that would usually mean that the protagonists must be male – and especially so if they are middle or upper class.

The Victorian period defined the roles of women with an iron rigidity. Amongst the “respectable” classes it was expected that as the “gentler sex” ladies would be meek and self-sacrificing, “domestic angels” who stayed in safe, homely environments, did not go out alone, did not engage in business or the professions. And these were not just quiet expectations. There were legal constraints which forbade women from pursuing professions (as examples, women were legally not allowed to be either barristers, nor stockbrokers on the London Stock Exchange until long after the Victorian period – 1919 and 1973 respectively). And social censure – even for things we might consider normal, such as a woman going out to a restaurant unchaperoned – could be severe.

The idea was that there was a “separation of spheres”, in which women acted in the private, supporting sphere of nurture and domesticity – looking after the home, supporting their menfolk. And this makes it very difficult to write strong investigative characters. How can a woman launch into a dangerous investigation when everyone around her expects her to stay meekly at home, and many institutions and whole areas of public life are off limits to her? A cosy murder-mystery could doubtless be written about a Victorian lady who (perhaps in the style of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple) solves cases while chatting over tea and scones. And because lower class women were forced by economics to work they were less constrained by convention, which raises the possibility of working class Victorian heroines. But something edgier set amongst the respectable classes remains problematic.

And then in erotica we also have more problems. It is boring if all the female characters have been socially conditioned to think that they should be meek and accommodating: there may be people who want to read about women who are content to dutifully do what they are told, but for a range of hot, intriguing erotic situations we need women who are more varied in their outlooks, and often more confident, both socially and sexually.

The easy way to deal with this is, of course, to do what some authors do – and what some readers want – which is to ignore the whole issue, and just pretend that women can do more or less whatever they want (or whatever it is convenient for the plot that they might do), and that their attitudes are also conveniently modern. Often an author will make a side comment about how a heroine doesn’t accept society’s expectations – without asking why this woman rejects everything she has been brought up to, or how this affects her social interactions – and then carries on telling a story of a modern woman in period costume. And that is one way to deal with the issue. It is certainly an approach that many readers seem to like – especially if they want to project themselves onto the main female character.

But this is not particularly interesting. Perhaps we could say that actually distorting history, telling lies about what it was like to live in the past is dishonest and damaging – as people often use their conceptions of the past to inform their present opinions; or perhaps that is over-thinking things. But certainly this misses creative opportunities. Hopefully by taking the Victorian world as it was, we can weave more interesting stories than by reducing it to a series of set-dressings for modern stories. We chose the setting because it was interesting, didn’t we? Then why would we want to water it down, to make it more bland?

For one thing, there is fun to be had in playing with Victorian assumptions. In the short novella The Heir’s Mistresses there are two characters (the mistresses) who seem ideally, perhaps unnaturally, dedicated to the needs and wants of the patriarch in their lives. For their patron, the unimaginative Sir Charles, it seems quite reasonable that they should be so keen on subordinating their desires to his. But a modern reader might swiftly sense that all is not right, and so the plot develops with Sir Charles plausibly oblivious while the reader’s more modern mind speculates about what might really be motivating the women.

But Sir Charles’s mistresses are unusual characters, and we need to be able to include, and ideally give a starring role to, a broad range of women who do not all embody either the Victorian ideal or the Victorian reality.

To make for exciting erotic mysteries with female leading characters, we need women who are freer to move around socially, more confident, and, bluntly, more empowered than is likely in a Victorian setting. So how do we approach this?

The Sexual Sorcery series gives some examples of how this can be done.

The books focus on the investigations of a small group of accomplices – two women and one man, informally led by the socially senior of the ladies, Catherine Wolseley. It is an erotic mystery, but it also has a paranormal backdrop, being set in the occult underworld of Victorian London, where dubious scholars conspire and scheme as they delve into forbidden and ancient secrets.

The setting, therefore, gives us our way to empower Catherine Wolseley. In a world where intelligence and secret wisdom are key, she has a wealth of information, and has the wit and courage to use it. So, while the wider society expects men to tell women what to do, in this situation she is able to lead the investigation, directing her bemused male colleague’s efforts – not only because she is cleverer than him, but because she knows much more about the situation that they are in.

Further, a story about occult conspiracies immediately brings into play other characters who are not conventional Victorians, in a range of contexts which are equally unusual. As the seductive Signora Cenci tells Catherine Wolseley’s accomplice Fredrick Clifford, “You have been taught to be a gentleman by following a set of rules. And now you find yourself in situations where the rules do not seem to work; situations for which no rules have been written.” Catherine also gains freedom to act because she, unlike him, does understand these situations and their unspoken rules: just as he is baffled because it is not sufficient for him to behave as a conventional gentleman, she is liberated because it is not necessary for her to act as a conventional lady.

This creates a situation in which unusually confident, capable female characters can take an active role. This in turn makes the story much more interesting for the reader, and ensures that our plot doesn’t have to be dominated by male characters.

Then we need to introduce to these unusual situations characters who are more proactive than their social peers might expect, without falling into the trap of making them modern people in fancy-dress. Each needs their own story, their own genesis, and from that their own motivations.

This is where there are no rules – each character has to be freed to develop freely, plausibly, growing naturally from the world without being crammed arbitrarily into a story line.

Catherine and her female accomplice, Emma, are both unusual enough women to thrive in this shadowy Victorian subculture. The novella Charity and Deception explains how Emma she came to enjoy this unconventional environment. Catherine’s story is being revealed more slowly, with references in Sexual Sorcery to an unusual and privileged family background, but for the moment the details are being left deliberately unclear. But in both cases, these are women who are products of their societies – who have gown out of, however unusually, the Victorian world – rather than being modern characters dropped conveniently into the story.

In this way it has been possible to write strong female characters to play leading roles in Victorian erotic mystery novels. And they should be interesting, convincing characters. Indeed, the fact that the situation requires them to be such remarkable women makes them more interesting heroines, and their stories more intriguing.