The Big Idea: Melissa Scott & Amy Griswold
Posted on April 13, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 8 Comments
The Victorian Era is a world we think we know… but as Melissa Scott and Amy Griswold tell us in this Big Idea for Death By Silver, beneath what we think we know is a world that must be inferred… and then explored.
MELISSA SCOTT & AMY GRISWOLD:
It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that Death by Silver got its start over a Victorian silver catalogue. The catalogue had specific implements for every possible contingency — not just three kinds of soup spoons (clear, cream, and turtle) and tiny trident-like oyster forks, but asparagus tongs and grape shears and Napier’s patent coffee machine — and as we stared at the pages one of us said, “Imagine the magic system…”
Of course a Victorian magic system would be just as complex, precise, and specific — indeed, that’s exactly what you find in the occult systems developed at the end of the nineteenth century — and I think it’s exactly that mix of complex rules and a tool for everything that’s so appealing. The period from the mid-19th century through the start of the First World War is attractive because it’s both familiar and deeply alien.
In terms of familiarity — well, most of us were forced to read something by Charles Dickens once in our lives, or at least have seen some version of “A Christmas Carol.” We think we understand the world pretty well: England is a conservative, colonialist monarchy ruled by a plump widow in black who Is Not Amused. It’s a society that has inviolable rules of behavior — segregated strictly by gender — and that is so opposed to sex that according to legend the legs of pianos were covered so that the mere sight of a limb would not engender lustful thoughts. For a queer reader/writer, this is also the beginning of what looks like familiar queer culture, of gay clubs, secret networks, and Oscar Wilde.
And, to a certain extent, all of this is true. But when you dig deeper into the period, you find that each of these apparently inviolable rules and regulations reflects the extent to which people are breaking them. Factors like gender, social class, and race and ethnicity make a tremendous difference in what rules people follow, what rules they can get away with breaking, and what rules they are determined to preserve — or to change. Many of the books on household management, for example, are written for women one rung lower on the social ladder than the purported subjects; they are instruction manuals for would-be social climbers and helpful hints for women thrust by marriage or money into a class higher than their own — and, perhaps most of all, they are a description of what women should want. And many of the women who read these idealized descriptions of domestic life actually worked for wages, not just in factories, but in shops and even in offices.
This is the period when the “typewriter” first appears — the word refers not just to the machine, but the woman who uses it, and she becomes the subject of much worried discussion, as well as of an entire subgenre of erotica. The rules of middle-class respectability say that men should be unemotional, logical, always in charge of themselves and others — but also acknowledge and validate the idea of passionate friendships among schoolboys, and of profound and lasting connections between adult men. Or between women, whose lifelong and deeply felt friendships are seen as perfectly acceptable as long as they don’t interfere with their proper duties, wifely or professional.
The same thing is true as you look at the period’s queer culture: some things seem terribly familiar, like the uses of camp and drag and the brittle wit of Oscar Wilde (though that may be because we’ve all been imitating him ever since). And, on the most basic level, most of the sex objects in 1881’s gay porn classic Sins of the Cities of the Plains are pretty familiar — except for the section with the handsome, burly dairymen. As you dig deeper, however, a wider spectrum of experiences becomes clear.
Once again, class and ethnicity are as strongly defining characteristics as sexual behavior — the differences between ladies of good family setting up housekeeping with their “lifelong friends” and the working class girls who cheered male impersonator Vesta Tilley are so profound that they might have come from different planets. The contrast between the extremely prescriptive social rules and the ease with which certain groups, at certain times, under certain circumstances could ignore or escape those rules is a perfect spur for fiction.
It’s also one of the reasons we chose to structure the story as a mystery: the difference — and sometimes conflict — between law and justice is an underlying theme for the entire genre. Writing about gay characters in a Victorian setting means that the characters must confront, at some level, the ways in which they are outside the law, and the ways in which justice cannot serve them. There was something irresistible in the idea of people outside the law attempting to bring justice, and that shaped Ned Mathey and Julian Lynes. Their public school left them skeptical about the law, but made them determined to achieve justice where they can, regardless of the risks. That inherent conflict — between law and justice, rules and reality — makes for an excellent story.
Death By Silver: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Books2Read|Kobo
Amy Griswold: Personal Site|Mastodon|Twitter
Melissa Scott: Personal Site|Mastodon|Twitter
I first found Melissa Scott through her books Dreamships and Dreaming Metal because I like stories about sentient AIs, and hers are great. Looking forward to this new one.
I have read this and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m glad to see it being reissued and hope it finds the wider audience it deserves.
I have read a number of Melissa Scott books and greatly enjoyed them. This one has an interesting premise and I plan to pick it up!
Ooh! I’m a long-time fan of Melissa Scott. Amy Griswold is new to me, but not for long. Bought it instantly.
It’s a society that has inviolable rules of behavior — segregated strictly by gender — and that is so opposed to sex that according to legend the legs of pianos were covered so that the mere sight of a limb would not engender lustful thoughts.
I actually looked into where this legend came from, and it’s not where you think!
First of all, it was not originally about Victorian Britain. It comes from an 1839 book called “A Diary in America” by a British author called Frederick Marryat (who also invented the genre of “Napoleonic Age of Sail Fiction” which gave rise to Jack Aubrey, Hornblower etc.)
So it’s Victorian but only just – Victoria came to the throne in 1837. And at that time Britain was still a fairly rowdy place, whose people saw the Americans as hilariously prissy, in particular in matters of Saying Naughty Words.
“I cannot conclude this chapter without adverting to one or two points peculiar to the Americans. They wish, in everything, to improve upon the Old Country, as they call us, and affect to be excessively refined in their language and ideas: but they forget that very often in the covering, and the covering only, consists the indecency; and that, to use the old aphorism—“Very nice people are people with very nasty ideas.”…
He goes on to tell two stories. One is about a woman who accidentally grazed her shin on a rock, and when Marryat asked “Did you hurt your leg much?” she was terribly offended and said that GENTLEMEN did not use the L-WORD in front of LADIES and Marryat should instead have used the approved word “limb”.
The other describes the head of a girls’ school who had made little trousers to fit over the legs, sorry, l*gs of her piano to avoid traumatising her fragile pupils.
Now, whether or not Marryat was telling the truth or embroidering a story or just making stuff up out of whole cloth, I have no idea… but that’s where the story originated.
This is another example of Era Slippage. Most of the cultural things we associate with a particular period in history, especially the ones that become cliches in depiction, come either from very late in that period, or from after its end.
Think about The Sixties – long-haired men smoking weed at music festivals, people dressed like Austin Powers, anti-Vietnam protests… that’s the 1970s, or at best the very late 1960s.
The Greed is Good 1980s – that’s Wall Street (1987) and the films that came after it, and Michael Milken (1989) and the Big Bang deregulation (1987).
Steampunk is Victorian? Well, sort of… but dirigibles and goggles aren’t even 1890s, they’re 1920s and 1930s.
Knights in shining armour? Surely that’s mediaeval? Well, not shining plate armour it isn’t. What you think of as a knight in shining armour – covered head to foot in plate – is probably wearing something from the 16th century. That’s Early Modern armour, not mediaeval. Mediaeval knights almost all wore mail.
The cover is beautiful and the description is enticing. Sold :-)
“Most of us were forced to read something by Charles Dickens once in our lives.” …. okay.