When I set out to write my own creative piece, I decided that although my novel would never be officially classified as Neo-Victorian, I still wanted to attempt to write something that would qualify. I wanted to view this work from the perspective of both a Steampunk writer and Neo-Victorian scholar. This meant that I needed to be accurate in my setting and in my subject matter, acknowledge other works in the Victorian period and write with, against or to them, and that I would need to establish a Steampunk element to push my story forward. It was important to me to be as true to both of the genres as I possibly could.
I knew two things when I started writing, the first was that I wanted it to begin my story with a newspaper article and the second was that I wanted to use Dracula by Bram Stoker as a basis for the structure of the novel. Dracula is written in a series of documents, consisting mostly of journals, letter, and telegrams to and from characters describing events. Dracula is written in a way that never directly tells the story; it is always left to the reader to decipher and piece together the story from what is presented to them.
The idea of reading between the lines of a document was something that was familiar to the Victorians since they often spoke to each other through different indirect ways. For instance, men and women could speak to each other with the color of wax or the positioning of the stamp on their letters just as easily as we convey messages through abbreviated texts of emojis. I felt that this style best fit both the tone, and the past Victorian setting, that I was trying to portray (thephilatelicdatabase.com). I felt writing the novel in this fashion and allowing my reader to have an overall view of the story as it unfolds before the characters would best fit the Victorian period and the Neo-Victorian genre that I was trying to replicate.
Once that was established, I set out to decide how to begin the story. I turned to Dracula once again for inspiration and direction what how best to accomplish a Victorian narrative. The first page of Stoker’s novel has this inscription:
How these papers have been placed in sequence will be made manifest in the reading of them. All needless matters have been eliminated, so that a history almost at variance with the possibilities of latter-day belief may stand forth as simple fact. There is throughout no statement of past things wherein memory may err, for all the records chosen are exactly contemporary, given from the standpoints and within the range of knowledge of those who made them. (Stoker 2)
I have always loved and appreciated the way that Stoker began this story, allowing his readers to enter the mystery knowing that it is in fact just that, a mystery. I also thought this was quite appropriate because it alerts the reader to the fact that they should not initially question where the documents are coming from and that all will be revealed in time. I had not actually considered doing anything similar until I had given the story to a beta reader and received feedback suggesting I write a short introduction for the book. Once this was brought to my attention I realized that it would work well and that it was a typical Victorian plot device, one that is seen directly in Dracula. So as I was finishing my book I went back and added a similar note to what is found in Stoker’s. This is meant to be a police report, which actually acts as a bookend to the last letter in the novel itself.
[Dated September 13, 1882] The following is an account sent to our office on the first of this month. The whereabouts of those listed in this document are currently unknown. Case Notes:
Personally, I don’t believe a word of this. It seems like a children’s story to me. Best not to be taken too seriously. Read at your own folly as it is quite the most elaborate tale and you may find yourself wasting the entirety of a day on it.
[Signed] Sgt. Barton Rucklesbee (Crump 2)
I needed a Steampunk element and I already knew that I wanted to work with the subgenre of Gaslamp Fantasy. Leanna Renee Hieber speaks about Gaslamp Fantasy in her guest post on popular website, FS Signal. She says that
Gaslamp Fantasy holds the keys to kingdoms of gorgeously atmospheric gas-lit streets; a Historical Urban Fantasy landscape where truly anything could happen and will. I feel freer writing Gaslamp Fantasy as the magical and fantastical systems can come directly from a character-based solution, a local and personal magic, rather than being beholden to external physical and material properties. (Hieber, sfsignal.com)
Gaslamp fantasy is contained within the larger Steampunk world but uses magic and the paranormal instead of the gears and gadgets, which can be seen in mainstream Steampunk. As Hieber says in her post, it does allow plot problems to be character-based and it does allow for more flexibility, where as traditional Steampunk typically contains the plot problems in an outside factor, rather than within a character. It allows for character-heavy story telling. Since I was writing a story that was written through the writings of other characters, it felt important for the story to also be character driven.
The plot of my novel, and the Steampunk element, was inspired by a poem written by Coventry Patmore called The Angel in the House. The poem is written in narrative style and is a few hundred pages long. The entirety of the text is focused on Patmore and his wife, Emily, and their relationship, beginning with their courtship. The poem, whether intentional or otherwise, eventually became a point of comparison for Victorian women. Patmore speaks at length about his wife and wonderful and permissible she is. She is said to be an angel in his home, a perfect docile creature who loves him unconditionally.
While she, too gentle even to force
His penitence by kind replies,
Waits by, expecting his remorse,
With pardon in her pitying eyes;
And if he once, by shame oppress’d,
A comfortable word confers,
She leans and weeps against his breast,
And seems to think the sin was hers; (Patmore 105-106)
Although Patmore’s poem is a tough read, certain parts of it really resonated with me as a writer, this section of especially. So I crafted my story around the idea of real angels. I turned Patmore’s figurative idea into something that was literal. I took time to filter in small aspects of the angelic presence, a presence that, as will be discussed later in the paper, becomes entirely clear as the plot develops.
My novel is set in London, England in 1882. My main character Ruth Merritt Holbrook has been orphaned as her family’s Manchester estate burns to the ground, killing both her parents and her twin sister, Lora. Because of the odd circumstances surrounding the house fire, Merritt is blamed. She is called a killer and locked away in a private asylum, a place that, when the story begins, she has called home for three years. The truth, the reader will slowly uncover, is that Merritt cannot feel pain.
This idea of my main character not being able to feel pain was both a Steampunk element and a Neo-Victorian element. While I was able to use this condition as a disability, which caused her to be mistreated and misunderstood by the world around her, I was also able to allow this condition to evolve into my Steampunk element. This was my Gaslamp fantasy character based problem. I also felt that writing a character that could not feel pain would limit what I would be able to describe.
The condition, which she does not understand, is something that Merritt has been dealing with her entire life. Until the beginning of the novel, she has managed to keep it hidden from the outside world. This all changes when the house fire starts and her inability to feel the fire is what keeps her from dying. Once this was discovered, numerous newspapers, one of which is used as the first chapter, accuse her of being mentally unstable. The local newspaper, The Bolton Bugle, reported that
a figure emerged from the front of the burning estate. The figure, discovered later to be the second daughter of MR. HOLBROOK, RUTH MERRITT HOLBROOK, aged 13 years, was burnt badly, her hair and dressing gown burnt black. She was bleeding and obviously gravely injured, and yet she emerged from the house without cry of pain or fear. She did not acknowledge or ask after her own injuries, instead she proceeded to sit upon the grass and watch her home burn. When questioned by police, she continued to ignore her burns, even going as far as to laugh when someone asked her if she was in pain. (Crump 4)
This is a selection taken directly from the opening section of the novel. Writing the three newspaper articles that appear in the novel was one of the toughest challenges. I spent a lot of time comparing pictures of different newspapers from 1882 and examining their formatting, their structure, when and where they placed information and learning how to best deliver an visual when I could only state facts. I knew that since I was trying to achieve the Neo-Victorian genre, I needed to have the small details correct. I needed things to look and feel Victorian. I achieved this through the formatting and spacing of font and working to make sure that the tone stayed consistently Victorian.
The majority of the story is told in journal entries from Merritt’s point of view. But, as the story moves forward new voices and new documents join hers, the story quickly deepens to include other narratives outside of just her own. While Merritt struggles with her new place in life and not understanding who she is, other Character’s are providing hints and clues to both Merritt’s story and their own. Through this, the reader is able to piece together the mystery of Merritt’s past and begin to understand her future.
Slowly, the reader is introduced to a few characters that write alongside Merritt. These new characters are my literal angels, although Merritt is unaware of this. As the story progresses, she learns that her inability to feel pain is because of her past and because of a personal mission, almost vendetta, against another one of the characters. Merritt realizes that although she has forgotten it, she is an angel who chose to become human in hopes of killing a demon. When in heaven, Merritt fell in love with another angel named Leviathan. When the war in heaven happened, Leviathan fell. He became a demon and has since spent his time on earth promoting the cause of Satan and encouraging sinful behavior. When Merritt realizes whom she is and what has happened she writes about the past memories she has regained. She says,
I went before Adonai and begged to be allowed to go to earth. I knew Leviathan, I had once claimed to know his heart, and it went against everything in me to allow him to continue to plague humans the way he was. My love, the archangel I fell for, is better than this. I could not allow him to remain a monster (Crump 172).
As was explained earlier, writing Steampunk requires that an author has a firm grip on what Steampunk devices will be used and what rules align with those devices. In my experience, this meant researching angels and understanding the hierarchy, which is already laid out before me. For this, I used Richard Webster’s book Encyclopedia of Angels. In this book, Webster lists alphabetically every angel mentioned in the Bible and in other religions. He also includes information on verses where these angels can be found and he explains their purpose. It was from this book that I chose my angels and many of their attributes. For instance, my villain in this novel is Satan himself, but in most of the book, he goes by the alias Lucius Edward Abaddon. Although the name Lucius becomes a bit sinister once the reader realizes where the novel is headed, the last name Abaddon has negative connotations the entire time. The Encyclopedia of Angels defines Abaddon as being “God’s destroyer” (Webster 1). Webster later lists Revelation 9:11, a Bible verse, which says, “And they had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in Hebrew tongue is Abaddon” (Webster 1).
In joining my Neo-Victorian and Steampunk elements I again used the selection previously included from Coventry Patmore’s poem The Angel in the House. Just as that selection of the poem shows Patmore’s wife being longsuffering and easy to forgive, I used those same traits in Merritt when dealing with the demon she has come to kill, Leviathan. Merritt once loved Leviathan and knew him before his fall, she knows what he is doing is wrong and she loves him enough to want to stop him from it. She does not believe that he would want this life for himself and that it would be best to kill him rather than allow him to continue being a monster.
In this poem, Patmore says that his wife “leans and weeps against his breast, /And seems to think the sin was hers;” whenever he has done something wrong against her or against others (Patmore 106). Although Merritt’s experiences are different than what Patmore was describing, I wanted to give her the same heart that was expressed in this poem. I wrote Merritt in a way that would show her heartbreak and her mourning over Leviathan and what he has become. Her mission to kill him is not motivated by her own hatred; rather it is a sense of moral injustice and love, which bring her to that eventual desire.
When forming the Victorian world, a requirement of both genres, I had to consistently filter in small aesthetical and cultural pieces of information. I wanted to present the reader with a world that was both believable and was informative, without it coming across as educational. This meant just generally understanding what I was talking about. Looking back at the novel, at least fifty percent of what I learned about the Victorian period never found a place in the pages of my novel. I spent hours reading sections of websites on courting and dances, even though my characters never actually did those things. This secretive knowledge was necessary so that my characters could also be knowledgeable. Just because Merritt had not experienced something directly did not mean that she was incapable of knowing or understanding it. Something as simple as what a character does when greeting a lady spoke volumes on both his rank in society and his overall attitude. Merritt experiences this when first meeting Lucius Abaddon,
When he was satisfied with his proximity to me, he settled onto the lumpy thing and folded his fingers across his crossed knees. After offering me an amused smile he turned to look quickly around the room taking it all in. Nurse Franklin was sitting in the other armchair and, for lack of chairs, both nuns were standing by the door.
It is not until this moment, as I recount this, that I realize that he never offered to stand himself. There had not even been the usual fuss over him wanting to give the only remaining chair to a lady. I wonder if he believed etiquette unimportant since they are nuns. In hindsight, I find this all quite strange. Men are not supposed to sit while a lady stands—nuns or otherwise (Crump 27-28).
It is small things, like understanding the importance of this man offering up his chair, that later work as hints to his overall character. Although Lucius Abaddon plays the sympathetic doctor, he is inherently unsettlingly for Merritt to be around. She knows from the moment he takes her hand without her permission and asked her to call him by his first name that he is obviously unconcerned with social decorum. While this may unnerve her, these small things work to make him appealing and wild. She has been trapped in an asylum and this man, with his flashy clothes and friendly disposition, offers her freedom.