I have a confession to make: I’m addicted to Victorian “hunger games.” No, I’m not talking about some new infestation of bastardized romance novels, like Pride and Prejudice and Decapitation or Sense and Sensibility and Swordplay. And I’m not referring to little known versions of Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë novels where the heroines are marooned on an island and must eat raw monkey hearts and build canoes out of coconut trees before they can meet the man of their dreams. (Though that would be a fun read, wouldn’t it?)
I’m talking about the recent wave of Young Adult books featuring Victorian girls and women who live on their own, run their own businesses, disguise themselves as gentlemen or sailors or errand boys, have adventures that would make most Victorian men wet their trousers, and defeat the bad guys time and time again. I’m talking about a particular type of hunger and a particular manner of survival in a time that was far too particular about what women could or could not want.
When I first noticed the growing number of YA novels about young independent women taking on the dinosaurs of the Socio-Mesozoic age, the Inner Pedantic Writer in my head said, “Oh great, just what we need! More romantic fluff for teen and pre-teen girls.” I had to agree. I mean, isn’t it bad enough that half the YA covers show a girl and boy kissing, or holding hands, or rubbing noses, or, in at least one case, miming a sex act? Have we exhausted the supply of girl-meets-boy stories to the point where we are forced to import them from Victorian England?
After I’d read one or two of these books, though, I realized my Inner Pedantic Writer was wrong. These aren’t bodice-ripper stories for the under-aged. They are serious adventures and mysteries with brave, intelligent heroines. But I did have to wonder: Why were so many writers suddenly eager to plop their heroines down in a time and place where even getting to the scene of a crime takes almost as much imagination and plotting as an entire sci-fi novel?
“Because,” Inner Pedantic Writer answered, “freedom does not make for very exciting stories. If a heroine can be a transgendered bionic clone of Hercule Poirot, have sex wherever and whenever she wants, shoot, stab, karate chop, chainsaw or lightsaber the villains as needed, and even solve crimes in other people’s books—well, what’s left? Where is the tension going to come from?”
That sounded reasonable. But after a little thought I realized there were two problems with Inner Pedantic Writer’s theory:
1) It suggested that there are no major obstacles left for women and therefore any story set in modern times has to be dull because all the big issues are gone. Clearly Pedantic Inner Writer has forgotten The Handmaid’s Tale, Bastard Out of Carolina, Speak, Try to Remember, The Murderer’s Daughters, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and the dozens of other moving, powerful stories about women fighting for life and liberty in modern (or future) times.
2) It implies that those authors who choose to set their stories in Victorian times are choosing an easy way out. But Inner Pedantic Writer knows that trying to write a mystery—any mystery—is not an easy job. Imagine if you have to figure out how your heroine is going to go out in public alone, how she can take on cases when no one will hire a lady, how she can interview victims and witnesses and criminals when no one will speak to her about such sordid things, and how, once she’s solved the case, she can deliver her findings without anyone knowing what she’s done. It’s like trying to fly a broom through a bonfire.
So, I sent Inner Pedantic Writer off to his room with an armful of books, and while he was gone, I read every Victorian series I could get my hands on. That’s when I discovered what it is about these books that is so addictive. They aren’t just tales of mystery and romance and adventure. They’re survival stories. True, the heroine doesn’t have to learn to find food and water on a desert island, or fight for her life in a televised game of kill-or-be-killed. But she has to find a way to be free in a society that does not want her to be free.
This type of “hunger games” has some extra complications: There is no audience or choreography, and there is no final moment of escape or victory. If the heroine fails, she will be raped or killed or, at best, left to die on the streets. If she makes herself too visible, she will be labeled a mad-woman or whore (or both) and locked away or hanged. So all her victories have to be personal and invisible. Her triumphs have to come from being quicker and braver and more cunning than the enemy. And the reward for her heroism is to live one more day as the free and independent spirit she wants to be, rather than the object she’s expected to be.
I can’t think of many stories more inspiring than that.
Here are a few of my favorites. Feel free to add to the list, or contribute your own thoughts about the genre.
Enola is the 14-year old sister of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes. When their mother vanishes one day, she has two choices: Enroll in a girl’s boarding school and become a proper lady, as Sherlock and Mycroft want her to do, or run away. She decides to run away and, somewhat by accident, becomes involved in the mystery of a kidnapped boy. Enola not only has to deal with all the usual dangers of Victorian London, she also has to contend with her brilliant brothers, both of whom believe it’s their duty to catch her and send her off to school.
Most people know Philip Pullman for his His Dark Materials series, but before there was The Golden Compass, there was Sally Lockhart—the most realistic of all the Victorian heroines listed here. Sally solves mysteries, but she suffers some very real hardships and tragedies in the process—which only make her triumphs that much more impressive.
Mary Quinn, a 12 year old orphan and thief, is about to be hanged when a stranger saves her and brings her to a private academy for girls. When Mary turns 17, the headmistresses of the school recruit her for their all female spy group, The Agency, and send her off on her first case: to spy on a wealthy businessman suspected of smuggling. In the process, she enters into a very complicated romantic relationship, and discovers some long-hidden secrets from her past.
12-year old Flavia de Luce is not technically a Victorian heroine, since she lives in post-WWII rural England. However, her family is landed gentry, and though they’ve fallen on hard times, their lifestyle and attitudes are nearly the same as their Victorian ancestors’, complete with manor house, cook and driver. Also, Flavia’s favorite “playroom” is a perfectly preserved Victorian chemistry lab left behind by her great Uncle Tar.
Also not technically Victorian, as it takes place in the 1790s. But Georgian England had many of the same constrictions as 19th century England, and the dangers the main character faces are nearly identical. An orphan living in a theater in London, Cat Royal accidentally stumbles onto a plot involving a stolen gem, a runaway slave, a political outlaw, and a very nasty boss of the streets.
Authors Wrede and Stevermer married fantasy to Victorian society to create a nobility based as much on magical prowess as on inheritance. The two cousins, Kate and Cecelia, write to each other about everything from romance to court intrigue, but are eventually caught up in a plot involving a twisted Marquis and an enchanted chocolate pot. Full of humor as well as adventure.
Another marriage of fantasy and Victorian society, but with a touch of horror and the supernatural thrown in. When 16 year old Gemma’s vision of her mother’s death comes true, she is sent to a girls boarding school with a mysterious burned out wing. At first, she’s snubbed by all the girls, but eventually she forces her way into a clique. As her visions continue, she discovers that she and the other members of her clique can enter a secret realm through her visons.
(This post first appeared on BeyondTheMargins.com)