By C.M. Fontana (Guest Blogger)
Writing mystery novels set in the Victorian period throws up problems for how one might write a heroic female lead. And writing Victorian erotica with a strong woman at the fore has its own problems.
Writing a Victorian erotic mystery with strong female characters therefore becomes doubly difficult.
Mystery novels need heroes who can be proactive, who can go out and confront, investigate and engage with whatever crimes or secrets they are investigating. And in a Victorian setting, realistically that means that they almost certainly have to be male - and especially so if they are middle or upper class.
The Victorian period was the most rigid and unforgiving in Western history when it came to the roles of women. The "gentler sex" were supposed to be meek, self-sacrificing creatures, "domestic angels" who stayed in safe, homely environments, did not go out unchaperoned, did not express strong opinions, and supported the males in their lives. Not only were business and professions barred to women, and the doors of many institutions closed to them, but even actions which we might consider common today - like going to a restaurant alone - would have been considered scandalous.
The idea of the "separation of spheres", in which women were socially shunted into the private, supporting sphere of nurture and domesticity, make it very difficult to write strong investigative characters. How can a woman go out and get stuck into some dangerous investigation when everyone around her expects her to stay meekly at home? A cosy murder-mystery could doubtless be written about a Victorian lady who (perhaps Miss Marple-like) solves cases while chatting over tea and crumpets, but something edgier or more action-packed becomes very hard.
And then in erotica we also have problems. It is extremely limiting if all the female characters have been socially conditioned to think that they should be meek and accommodating: there may be people who want to read about women who want nothing but to meekly do what they are told, but for a range of hot, intriguing erotic situations we need women who are more varied in their outlooks, and often confident, both socially and sexually.
Of course there is fun to be had in playing with conventions and assumption. In the short novella, The Heir's Mistresses, I have two characters (the aforementioned mistresses) who seem ideally, perhaps unnaturally, dedicated to the needs and wants of the patriarch in their lives. Readers should immediately sense that all is not right, and will be unsurprised when the man is rudely (and violently) confronted by the truth that his doting mistresses were not, in fact, as meek and selfless as they seemed. But that is an aside. The issue remains that we need to be able to include, involve, and ideally focus on female characters who are very far from the Victorian ideal, or the Victorian reality.
So, to make for exciting erotic mysteries focusing on female characters we need characters who are freer to move around socially, more confident, and more, frankly, powerful than is realistic in a Victorian setting. So how do we approach this?
There is an easy answer. And that is to ignore the whole issue. We could just create a character who is, essentially, a 21st century woman, and put her in a situation that seems superficially Victorian but which is, really, the 21st century with set-dressing. And this is easy for the writer and for the reader. To have modern characters and settings, but in pretty costumes, makes everything very easy to understand, to relate to. But is it the most interesting solution? And having made the decision to set a story in the Victorian period, do we really want to water it down?
Each author needs their own solution to this. But I'll attempt to explain how I handled this for the Sexual Sorcery series.
Sexual Sorcery focuses on the investigations of a small group of accomplices - two women and one man, informally led by a lady named Catherine Wolseley. It is an erotic mystery, but it also has a supernatural edge, being set in the occult underworld of Victorian London, where sinister scholars and charlatans conspire and plot as they delve into shadowy secrets.
The setting, therefore, gives us our way to empower Catherine Wolseley. In a world where intelligence and secret knowledge are prized, she has access to a wealth of information, and has the brains to use it. So, while the wider society expects men to tell women what to do, in this context she is able to lead the investigation, directing her hapless male colleague's efforts - not only because she is cleverer than him, but because she knows much more about the situation that they are in.
Further, a story about occult conspiracies immediately brings into play other characters who are not typical, conventional Victorians, in a range of situations which are equally unusual. As the seductive Signora Cenci tells Catherine's hapless male accomplice, "You have been taught to be a gentleman by following a set of rules. And now you find yourself in situations where the rules do not seem to work; situations for which no rules have been written." Catherine also gains freedom to act because she, unlike him, does understand these situations and their unspoken rules: just as he is baffled because it is not enough for him to behave as a conventional gentleman, she is liberated because it is unnecessary for her to act as a conventional lady.
This creates a situation in which unusually confident, capable female characters can take a proactive role. This in turn makes the story much more interesting for the reader, and means that our plot doesn't have to be dominated by male characters.
The next step, then, is to introduce to this situation characters who are unusually proactive without falling into the trap of making them modern people in fancy-dress. Each needs their own past, their own motivations.
This is where there are no rules - each character has to be freed to develop honestly, plausibly, without me, as the writer, imposing on them.
Catherine and her female accomplice, Emma, are both unusual enough women to thrive in this shadowy Victorian subculture. Emma has her own novella, Charity and Deception, which explains how she came to prosper in this unconventional environment. Catherine's story is being revealed more slowly, with references in Sexual Sorcery to an unusual and privileged family background, but the details remaining, at present, vague. But in both cases, these are women who have grown out of their setting - who are products, however unusually, of the Victorian world - rather than being modern characters parachuted into the story.
In this way it has been possible to create female heroines for Victorian erotic mystery novels. And they should be convincing, interesting characters. Indeed, the fact that the situation requires them to be such remarkable women makes them, I hope, better heroines.
Sexual Sorcery: An Erotic Tale of Sex, Mystery and the Occult, in Victorian England by C M Fontana
An unwitting academic stumbles into the erotically-charged occult underworld of Victorian London. With a cast of characters including an investigator with a talent for seduction, a mesmerist collecting a harem of beautiful ladies, and a woman who believes she has had sex with Satan, Sexual Sorcery is a sizzling story of decadence, conspiracy and carnality.
When a collection of books go missing from the University's collection, Fredrick Clifford travels to London in search of the likely culprit, an apparently respectable gentleman named Victor Braystone. But he soon finds that he is not the only one with an interest in Mr Braystone, and the manipulative Catherine Wolseley soon draws him into her own schemes.
As he, Miss Wolseley and their seductive accomplice begin to unravel Mr Braystone's plots, Fredrick Clifford finds himself both confused and entrapped in a shocking world of of sex and duplicity. And as the trail leads him from the seductions of a London club to a Satanic altar in the wilds of the Welsh borders, he struggles to make sense of both the dark uncertainties of the occult, and of an unfamiliar realm of debauchery and sex.
By Saturday morning, Fredrick had still not had time to visit the agency to advertise for a new domestic servant, and he was becoming heartily sick of bread and marmalade for breakfast – or, indeed, for any other meal that he could not reasonably eat out. It was also an irritation that he had to answer his own front door, and now he found himself greeted at his front step by a small grubby boy, in bare feet and ragged trousers, presenting him with a sealed envelope.
He took the letter, tipped the boy a coin, and closed the door.
The paper was expensive, that handwriting feminine. Inside, a note simply read:
Two o’clock. My carriage will collect you. We cannot have gaps in your education as a gentleman. Please be an attentive student. Such classes are not inexpensive.
And that was all. He assumed that it was from Miss Wolseley, and resigned himself to having to follow her cryptic instructions. In the meantime, he thought, he would finish his newspaper, and then visit the agency to and see if they could alleviate his domestic difficulties.
And so, soon after lunchtime, after a satisfactory visit to the agency he found on returning to his house a familiar carriage parked outside.
“My good man, am I late?”
“Not at all Sir,” the gruff coachman tipped his hat. “I’m early. Take your time, Sir. We aren’t due til ‘alf past.”
Fredrick re-emerged promptly at two o’clock, and climbed into the carriage, and sat back while it bounced and swerved through the city’s congested streets. Out of the window he saw gentrified houses, and, as the traffic moved slowly on the main roads, although the journey was barely two miles, it took over twenty minutes. He was relieved to find that they stopped in a fashionable West End street.
He stepped down from the carriage, and the coachman indicated the door across the road.
He crossed the street and rapped with the brass door knocker.
Promptly, the door was opened, and a short, grey haired maid opened the door.
“Fredrick Clifford,” he introduced himself. “I may be expected?”
“Of course,” the maid curtseyed, with a hint of an accent, perhaps Italian or French, and stepped back to let him in.
She took his coat, hat and cane, and then led him up the stairs, and into a well furnished sitting room. Tall windows let light flood into the room through lace curtains, the room was decked with a range of plushly upholstered chairs and settees, the largest of which, unusually, seemed to be the size of a single bed, but with ornate arms and a high back.
The maid motioned him to take a seat in a plush chair by the window. She assured him, “I will say that you have arrived,” and then withdrew.
As he waited, he looked around. The décor was, the more he considered the details, eccentric.
Not only were the chairs unusually deeply upholstered, and the main sofa far wider than was needed, but there were numerous sturdy hooks, which looked like they might have hung chandeliers before gas lighting was installed, both in the ceiling and also, inexplicably in the skirting board at the foot of the wall. There was also a faint but spicy scent in the air, which he suspected might be incense – an unusual scent to encounter outside of a High or Catholic church.
The door opened, and he turned to see a tall, graceful woman step into the room. She wore a red silk robe like a dressing gown, and around her neck an ornate necklace of black beads. Her brown hair hung loosely in flowing curls, cascading over her shoulders, and Fredrick’s eyes were drawn further down, to the sides of her firm breasts, indecently visible where the two sides of the robe met.
“I’m so sorry!” he instinctively stood up and turned his back on her, to stare fixedly out of the window.
“And why, Mr Clifford, are you sorry?” The voice was soft, the accent unmistakably continental.
“I am… that is to say…” He could barely hear her approach, her bare feet on the carpet. “Perhaps I should return when you are properly dressed.”
Her voice, now just over his shoulder, chided, “Mr Clifford, I was told that you were a gentleman.”
“Well, yes!” he replied, indignantly.
“And is it polite, when a lady enters a room, turn your back on her, and then proceed to criticise her choice of clothing.”
“Well, I… there is a question of what is appropriate!”
“Your lessons today,” she corrected him, “are to deal instead with the question of what is courteous – gentlemanly. You may be quite right about what is appropriate. But this afternoon, that is not our subject.”
To Frederick, what was gentlemanly and what was appropriate seemed intimately connected. But Miss Wolseley had, presumably, some purpose in sending him here.
“I apologise,” he conceded, turning to face her. It would be a shame to argue with such an attractive hostess.
She smiled and inclined her head. “Then shall we start again?”
The woman turned and walked softly back to the door. He watched her robe sway against her legs, and was impressed by her grace. She left the room, and shut the door after herself. Fredrick sat down again, and waited.
After a minute, the door opened again, and the woman returned.
Fredrick stood up, and stepped forwards to greet her. “Fredrick Clifford, Madam. At your service.”
She held out her hand, palm down, and he took it gently, and bowed slightly as he motioned to kiss it. He could not help, bending forward, but appreciate the gentle curve of her breasts, barely draped in thin red silk.
“Signorina Maria Cenci,” she replied with a hint of a curtsey. “Charmed to meet you, Sir.”
She motioned him across to the wide sofa, strewn with cushions, and when he sat she took a seat next to him. Her robe fell open at the knee, revealing her slender, pale calf, and Fredrick made an effort not to look too intently.
The door opened again, and the elderly maid entered, carrying a tray, which she set down on the table by the settee.
“Milk and sugar, Mr Clifford?” Signorina Cenci asked.
“Tell me Mr Clifford, she asked, as she poured the tea and the maid withdrew, “how should a gentleman behave towards a lady?”
Fredrick considered for a moment, and then, taking the cup and saucer offered to him, replied: “A gentleman should always be respectful.”
“And why is that important?” she asked. And when Fredrick had no ready answer, she clarified, “Why should a gentleman be respectful to a lady, and not, perhaps, to a tree or stone?”
“Obviously, trees and stones don’t have feelings!”
“So when you say respectful, you mean that you should be aware of the lady’s feelings?”
“Quite so,” Fredrick said, taking another sip of tea and then setting the cup aside. “The male is the stronger sex. It is our duty to protect, both physically and mentally, the frailer gender. It shows us to be civilized human beings, and not savages.”
“And so,” Signorina Cenci asked, “you see that, if a man turns his back on a woman as she enters the room, she might be upset. In which case, the gentlemanly response is to greet her courteously, perhaps?”
“I see your point, Madam,” Fredrick acknowledged, not wanting to argue.
“But is it also gentlemanly,” she teased, “as you bend down to kiss her hand, to stare so intently at her breasts?”
Fredrick blushed, “I am so sorry, Madam, I didn’t intend to.”
She laughed, and stood. “Then shall we try again?”
“Of course, if you wish.”
She left her tea cup on the table, walked to the door, turned, paused, and then returned towards the sofa.
Fredrick stood, stepped forward, and took her hand when she offered it. This time, as he bent and motioned to kiss her hand, he kept his eyes fixed firmly on the floor.
Again Signorina Cenci laughed.
“Mr Clifford,” she smiled, placing her hand on his arm. “Do you really think that if a lady deliberately appears dressed like this – ” she raised her other hand to her neck and let her index finger slowly trace a line along the hem of the robe, down her chest, over the mound of her breast “ – that she does not want to be admired?”
“Really, Madam, I protest,” Fredrick sighed, “You say that I should not stare, and now you say that I should stare. What am I to do?”
“Mr Clifford, you are to be a gentleman. You are to behave with consideration for the lady’s feelings.” Seeing that he was still confused, she continued. “If you stare dumbly at my chest – “ she turned slightly, so that he could fully appreciate the silhouette of her breasts – “I might consider the stare to be aggressive, or I might worry that you are no longer capable of rational thought. You are still capable of thought, Sir?”
He raised his eyes from the curve of her robe, to look her in the eye again. “Yes, of course.”
“But if you ignore me entirely, I might think that I have failed to impress you, or that you consider me ugly. You do not consider me ugly, do you?”
“No! Of course not!”
“Then, Mr Clifford, please, stop trying to guess what the rules are. There is but one rule to being a gentleman. Consideration for the feelings of the other person. And so, consider my feelings, and act accordingly.”
“Very well,” Fredrick acquiesced.
“Then shall we try once more?”
She walked back to the door, and again turned to face him. She paused for a moment. “Are you ready, Sir?”
She ran her finger down the front of her robe, and deliberately opened the gap at her chest a little further, so that the sides of both breasts were quite bare. “Are you certain?”
Fredrick paused for just a second and then answered confidently: “Yes, Madam.”
Amazon UK: http://amzn.to/1VaaXZC
Amazon US: http://amzn.to/1OunW9F
C M Fontana is a British erotic author, fusing plots of mystery, intrigue, and the supernatural with racy erotica. The first full-length novels, Sexual Sorcery, was published for Kindle in September 2015, with two novellas continuing the series released soon after.
Author Website: http://mysticerotica.com/
Author Twitter: @mystic_erotica
Details and excerpts of the books mentioned above can be found at Mystic Erotica: http://mysticerotica.com/erotic-stories/
Sexual Sorcery is available for Kindle: http://mybook.to/sexualsorcery
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