Molly Tanzer: Really? Victorian England Again?
I first discovered Molly Tanzer through her book, Vermilion, which really has one of the greatest covers I’ve ever seen. And, as it turns out, it has an equally awesome book underneath that cover. So, at this point, Molly can do no wrong, and she has my sword. And by my sword, I mean, my blog. Enjoy her talking about her newest, Creatures of Will and Temper.
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No one I know of has asked this about my latest novel, Creatures of Will and Temper (yet). Rather, it’s something I asked myself when I was considering the idea of writing a retelling of The Picture of Dorian Gray. The Victorian era is such a common setting for just about every sort of media you can think of, be it books, films, games, comics… was there a burning need for yet another “carriages and parlors” novel?
The answer I arrived at was, “sure, why not,” for two reasons. One, I like carriages and parlors. I also like pumpkin spice lattes, catch me outside. Two, every once in a while I get that feeling that I’ve hit on something genuinely cool—or at the very least, something I’d think was genuinely cool if I saw it explored in someone else’s novel—and I got that feeling about this wild hare to do a Dorian Gray novel with a gender-swapped Dorian and a gender-swapped Lord Henry Wotton. And épée fencing. And demons!
I studied Victorian literature and culture in graduate school, and so I felt well prepared for the task but…no lie, it was also extremely intimidating. Wilde’s style is distinctive and masterful, and Dorian Gray is one of those literary figures whom almost everyone knows reasonably well. Even people who haven’t read the original novel know that Dorian Gray has a magic picture that becomes increasingly gross while he stays young and magnificent even as he does terrible things. If I was going to do something interesting, I’d need to nod at what everyone knows about that classic work of literature, and then go beyond it. Otherwise, why bother?
I’d also need to prove why another Victorian novel was necessary, if only to myself.
I actually considered doing a modern-day retelling of Dorian Gray, but that didn’t excite me in the same way. I also considered a second-world fantasy setting that hearkened to Victorian England, but involved like… a bee-based religion, and some other weird stuff. That was very obviously the wrong choice. Even in the planning stages the worldbuilding was taking too much of my energy away from what I wanted to be the focus of the book.
What I wanted the focus to be was something not found in the original: relationships between women. Specifically in my project that manifested as the relationship between two sisters, the vivacious 17-year-old Dorina Gray, who longs to become a lady art critic and aesthete, and her older sister Evadne, who would like to be left alone to practice her fencing and think proper thoughts. I also wanted to play with Wilde’s themes of mentorship and the consequences of decadence, and construct an extraplanar cosmology, for lack of a better way to put it.
All of that made it clear to me that Victorian London was ideal setting for this project. One can only have so many moving parts in a novel, and late 19th century England was a setting I was already pretty familiar with. It’s also a setting other people are pretty familiar with. You say to someone “The streets of London were misty that night” and for better or for worse they can immediately picture what you’re talking about. Therefore, the work I needed to do to establish setting was blessedly minimal—I think it is what I think people younger than me call a “hack.”
That’s not to say I didn’t indulge my impulse to research. I did, and I learned things I didn’t know before—like that women at that time didn’t dine in public. A big action sequence was added to the book after I spent an enjoyable, if wet, afternoon in the famous Seven Dials area of London. But I also relied heavily on the reader’s assumed knowledge borne of reading some other book or seeing some other film, such as A Christmas Carol or Dracula.
So… that’s why Victorian London. Again. I could go on, nerding out about how that time and that place is also fascinating to me for a lot of reasons like changing social roles, and fin de siècle anxieties, and other stuff… but the truth is, I needed something easy to be the backdrop as I wrestled with the bigger thematic issues in Creatures of Will and Temper.
(Also, carriages! And parlors!)