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Tasha Alexander | Reality Bites...or What Was It Really Like in Victorian England?

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Being a historical novelist has its perks and pitfalls. The perks? Being able to work in pajamas is probably my favorite. I love the travel that comes with the job--whether it’s when I’m on the road meeting readers or embarking on a research trip. I love being to stay up till four in the morning writing and getting to sleep late (mornings have never been good for me; I’m much more coherent in the middle of the night). And I love the reading my work requires--poring over diaries and letters written by Victorian woman, studying the history of the time.

It’s this perk that leads to a pitfall--a pitfall that is one of the hardest things to deal with when writing historical fiction. Often, when you study history, you find that the actual truth does not always match with modern ideas of what the past was like. We like to think we know the Victorians--how they were prudes who never let any female out of the house without a chaperone and admonished their daughters to lie back and think of England.

None of which is quite true. According to Michael Mason’s fantastic book, The Making of Victorian Sexuality, in the middle of the 19th century a third to half of English brides were pregnant at their weddings. Not what you expected, right? I was surprised. Just as I was surprised to read about how the servants mapped out the bedrooms assigned to guests at country house parties--the arrangements were organized so it would be easy for gentlemen to slip into their mistress’ rooms. The staff planned accordingly when delivering morning tea.

While working on Tears of Pearl, I started off with the prejudices and assumptions most westerners have about Ottoman culture. I set the book in Constantinople because I was fascinated with its exoticness. The last thing I expected to learn was of the significant roles played by Ottoman women in the government--the sultan’s harem was not, in fact, a debauched playground. Instead it was full of well-educated, intelligent women, most of whom were fluent in multiple languages. This was a society where upward mobility was possible, even for girls. One of the sultans brought into the harem a girl whose beauty struck him as she carried a bundle of laundry across a city square. She came to the palace, learned everything she could, and became the sultan’s favorite. When her own son inherited the throne, she was titled Valide Sultan--sultan’s mother--more powerful than many government ministers.

While researching, I was also struck by the tenacity and courage of western women, particularly the English. These were not timid ladies sitting at home doing needlepoint. They traveled--and not only to safe, Western European destinations. They went to the Orient, dined with sultans, visited the harem. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of a British ambassador, adopted Eastern dress on occasion when she lived in Constantinople in the eighteenth century, and wrote vivid accounts of what life was like in the city and in the royal harem. Her description of concubines in the hamam (baths) inspired me to have Emily explore the rituals of Turkish bathing as well.

Lady Layard, whose husband was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century, became extremely close friends with the sultan, Abdül Hamit--something that initially I wouldn’t have assumed possible for a western woman. But after reading about how she dined with the family in the harem (again, please remember the harem is not a den of iniquity--it was a family--albeit a large and unique sort of family--home, watched the sultan play with his children, and talked to him about his plans to form schools where girls could get western style educations. But they didn’t only travel with husbands or as part of the diplomatic cor ps. Anna Bowman Dodd, an American writer, also found herself welcomed by the sultan, and wrote in detail about harem life and Turkish women at the turn of the century. Myriads of English women traveled with a female companion to the outer reaches of the Empire and beyond. Gertrude Bell went on her own--and helped map Persia. She traveled throughout the Middle East, often staying in small villages and living with the natives. Her choices were more daring than those most of us modern women would make. I can’t count the number of people who questioned my decision to travel to Istanbul by myself on my research trip. There are ways in which we’re more timid than our Victorian counterparts.

As I sat down to start writing the book, I wondered if modern readers would balk at the idea of an Englishwoman having easy access to the sultan’s harem, as Emily does. I wondered if they would be surprised at the amount of political power given to the sultan’s mother. As always, I wondered if they would accept the fact that people, when you come right down to it, are not so different now than they were a century ago, that their priorities, their passions, their fears haven’t changed much. But I moved forward with confidence, knowing the choices I was making for my fictional characters w ere grounded by the truth.

Historical novelists like to trade stories about readers who have called them out for various anachronisms--some of which are valid (and for which we are beyond grateful), but many of which fall into the category of authentic but unbelievable. We know we can’t get every detail correct, but the next time you come across something you think must be wrong, pause for a minute. We are careful. We do our research. And we may have chosen our details specifically to give you a broader--and more accurate--view of what life was like all those years ago.

And as for lying back and thinking of England? Don’t blame the Victorians. The phrase comes from an Edwardian diary written by a woman less than pleased about her husband’s nighttime visits. Hardly grounds for dismissing the passion of an entire generation...

 

 

Comments

9 comments posted.

Re: Tasha Alexander | Reality Bites...or What Was It Really Like in Victorian England?

My hats off to you for all the reseach that you have to do for your books. I thught it was Hard enough with just the writting the story with what plot , setting, the characters , spelling and grammar (whigh I hate in school and failed at by reading my comment). Love to read just fiction that is close to how it was in any time if was historical or to the present. Good luck with Tears of Pearl.
(Jeanette Bowman 2:33pm September 2, 2009)

It must be so interesting to do all of the research; to discover the truth in the lives of 19th century citizens. It's great that you are able to include this in your books. Thanks for the lessons in history.
(Robin McKay 3:54pm September 2, 2009)

To travel and do reasearch has to be wonderful.I love anything historical. My oldest grandaughter is engaged to a high school history teacher. Too bad he lives 1,200 miles away, we could compare notes. GOOD LUCK with your books.
(Evelyn Day 4:51pm September 2, 2009)

A fascinating expose. Thanks so much for it. One of my favorite books is "A Gift for the Sultan" by Olga Stringfellow, a novel which was supposedly based on the life of a British woman sold into slavery. Instead she became the favorite wife of the Moroccan sultan and bore him a son who was made sultan upon his father's death. She too advised her son and helped him, especially during the French Revolution. I also have another book, this one more of a biography of a woman from the harem who reached influence in the Ottoman Empire. I believe her name was Aimee and may be one of the ones you've mentioned.

BTW, some of my friends were horrified that I travelled alone to Washington, D.C. some 20 years ago and before that throughout Europe, though I never did get around to Turkey.lol
(Sigrun Schulz 5:23pm September 2, 2009)

P.S. Your books sound so fascinating that I'm making an exception and "taking on" a new-to-me author. I've already put a hold on Emily Ashton #1 at the library.
(Sigrun Schulz 5:31pm September 2, 2009)

What an interesting life you lead. All the research and travel would be a lot of hard work, I'm sure, but what a wonderful experience. I can't wait to read Tears of Pearls.
(Theresa Buckholtz 5:52pm September 2, 2009)

You gave so much interesting and educational information. I'm anxious to read 'Tears of Pearl'. The story sounds fantastic!
(Rosemary Krejsa 7:19pm September 2, 2009)

Excellent post. There is so much out
there to read and explore. I traveled
alone while in the Peace Corps and on
my trip home from my assignment.
That was cut short after only 10 days.
I managed Singapore, Indonesia and
Bali before getting word my mother
was dying. I had planned a 3 month
trip (the length of time my passport
was good) through Southeast Asia,
India. and the Middle East. Hope to
get there some day. Traveling on a
shoe string like I was, I was very much
on the economy. I stayed in $2 a
night local establishments and ate at
street vendors and local cafes.
Traveling alone does have its draw
backs and there were a few times I
was concerned. However, in my three
years in the PC and on my short trip, it
was a great experience. You always
run into others traveling like you are
and you usually are not completely
alone. I can relate to these ladies and
do see how they could do what they
did. People were always willing to
share their country and culture with
those who were truly interested.
I will definitely bee looking for this
series. I don't think our library has
them, but since I do some of the
ordering, I can take care of that, once
we get some more book money. We
are a very poorly funded library (less
than one tenth the average national
per capita funding).
(Patricia Barraclough 11:22pm September 2, 2009)

I had bought into the Victorian lifestyle, thinking it must be true. I had heard of Gertrude Bell though! Now that I know better, well, that's more for me to read and find out, right?
(Anne Harris 8:59am September 3, 2009)

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