This is what happens when you ask the obvious question of a Historical Fiction author. Thank you to the wonderful Rebecca Mascull for her time and patience. Why the eighteenth century? My second novel SONG OF THE SEA MAID is set in the eighteenth century and what a century it was. Violent and chaotic – there seemed to be a more or less constant state of war in Europe and beyond for much of the century; flamboyant and appalling – the fashions were extreme and the poverty was grinding. Life was cheap, children were treated as badly as animals, and the animals had a very bad time of it themselves. Women were generally seen as a lower order or a larger form of children. The poor were sometimes thought to be a different species, let alone those of other races. Religion ruled the roost, politics was rife with corruption and you could be sentenced to horrible punishments for blasphemy or for treason against the king. So, there’s plenty of material there for a novelist. But why in particular did I choose it for my setting? I knew that I wanted my main character to be a woman of science. She was going to begin with lowly origins, then later study, travel and get into scrapes. I wanted her to make a scientific discovery and develop a theory, formed by the experiences she has as she grows up and goes further afield. I could have set my protagonist down in another century – the nineteenth perhaps – and still achieved the same aim. The Victorian era was not easy for women either, or orphans for that matter (see Dickens!), so the nineteenth century would provide enough obstacles for our woman of science. And let’s face it, even the Twentieth century had only just shifted a little along the line to equality, when one thinks of the problems a woman like Rosalind Franklin had to be taken seriously by posterity. But my decision came when I realised that I wanted my scientist to be after the gigantic strides forward made by Isaac Newton and long before the mould-breaking work of Charles Darwin. I wanted her to be in the midst of the age of reason and yet still constrained by the rule of religion and also superstition. I wanted her to be born into an age that still believed in unicorns, dragons and mermaids, before dinosaurs were named but giant bones had been found and erroneously labelled as monsters. Into this melee comes my heroine, Dawnay Price, and through it she must negotiate a path of study and science. She is a creature of her age and yet she strives to escape it. Despite its horrors – scurvy on ships, stoning people in pillories, kidnapping boys for impressment – it’s such a fascinating age, that once I’d made my decision to use it, I fell headlong and was thrilled by it. The fabric of everyday life was wonderful – chairmen carrying the gentry, frost fairs on the Thames, children playing knucklebones – and when I’d finished writing, oh how I missed it! I might just open up SONG OF THE SEA MAID again and climb back in there, horrors and wonders all. Twitter – @rebeccamascull http://www.rebeccamascull.tumblr.com http://www.facebook.com/RebeccaMascull
Sounds like a very rich tapestry! Enjoyed this post, reminds me of how far we’ve come.
I couldn’t agree more with your motive for choosing the 18th Century, Rebecca.
Not only was it all the things you say, it was also a time of a flowering of appreciation of nature, and literature on the subject. In particular, some breathtakingly lyrical pastoral poetry emerged by writers like Francis Mundy and Thomas Gisborne, who have been an inspiration to me in my own work.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts.