The Big Idea: India Holton
The women of The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels have a most unusual talent — one that their society most decidedly does not approve of. Author India Holton raises the roof on this unusual ability… and why it was the one she chose for her cast of characters to have and use.
The big idea which inspired my fantasy romcom The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels was actually quite a small, simple idea to begin with. I wanted to write self-assured women characters who possessed power in their world – in this case, a magical incantation which allowed them to fly buildings. It seemed straightforward enough to me, and I settled in to have some fun with a group of ladies I intended to send swaggering and swashbuckling through an alternate Victorian England.
But as the story unfurled, all the intrinsic elements of a woman’s existence kept arising to block the characters’ power or outright take it from them. From how they should sit in a chair to their actual right to exist as independent people, these wicked lady pirates who disregard law to wreak havoc in their weaponised flying houses still find themselves constrained by gender-based social rules, misogyny, or male domination.
I could of course have chosen to ignore these influences, since I was creating a sideways version of reality. Or I could have chosen to lean the Wisteria Society even further away from niceness, into a reckless brutality which cared nothing for any rule. But I became fascinated by the dichotomy between female power and powerlessness.
Setting the book in Victorian England, a time in which even the Queen-Empress herself submitted to the dominant patriarchy, was an obvious choice. Every period of history has repressed women, of course, but it was the Victorians’ sentimentalisation of this, with their whole idea of “The Angel in the House,” that hooked me. So, I had my women turn their houses into battleships. Even so, they would never dream of hanging an unfashionably coloured curtain in their windows – and woe betide anyone who tries to call upon them outside of visiting hours! One might be a pirate, but that doesn’t mean one should be uncouth.
Although it seems daft that a woman capable of stealing diamonds from a duchess would still submit to the etiquette of how to address that duchess properly – or which spoon to use at the tea table while planning a heist – such disjunctions have in fact been normal for women throughout history. (And yes, it is daft!) Living in New Zealand, I’ve watched several female Prime Ministers wield authority with a capable hand and brisk intelligence, and still be scrutinised on their parenting choices, clothing choices, and how often they smile, in ways male leaders never are.
And so, my small idea quickly become a major theme which shaped every relationship dynamic in the book. While I hadn’t set out to create a treatise on feminism (not even a wacky, ridiculous treatise with bonking – on the head with parasols, if you please), looking back it seems inevitable that, as a woman author writing about women with power, I was going to find myself addressing feminist themes to some degree.
Ironically, the magical power my ladies possess actually made it easier to explore the elements of powerlessness. But this is one of the great things about writing fantasy. We can take a rather ordinary idea and twist it, conflate it, or blow it to pieces with a cannon fired from an elegant parlour window. So, the Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels enter the battle of the sexes with a cry of yo ho ho and a cup of tea. And they have riotous, villainous fun doing it – which in the end felt to me like the boldest feminist statement of all those I tried to make with this book.