The Big Idea: Melissa Scott & Amy Griswold
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.