29 October, 2016

Guest Post from M. J. Neary About The Sexual Norms in the Victorian Era!

I wanted to thank the Celtic Lady for giving me an opportunity to talk about my two Neo-Victorian novels, Wynfield's Kingdom and Wynfield's War. Both of them touch upon the Anglo-Irish conflict, among other things. Today I wanted to discuss certain misconceptions around Victorian sexual norms in various levels of society and disperse a few myths, as well as share my experience of pitching historically accurate Neo-Victorian fiction to publishers. 

Misconceptions about the Victorian era
In our collective mind, the Victorian era has become erroneously
associated with sexual repression. When we hear the term "Victorian woman", we think of a tightly corseted lady who faints at the very mention of carnal relations. It really makes you wonder how in the world did Victorians reproduce, if their women were allegedly so disgusted by the idea of sex. It's very easy to slap one-dimensional labels on an entire era for commercial purposes. The idea of sexual repression is a fairly hot universal topic, and it creates curiosity among the readers. 

The Victorian era spanned 60+ years, and society had seen many changes in that span of time. What people also tend to forget is that England was an extremely stratified society. The rules of conduct that applied to the upper classes were pretty much irrelevant in the lower classes. The industrial revolution opened up many opportunities for cultivating prosperity, causing the middle class to grow rapidly. Some of the merchants became almost as wealthy as some of the titled aristocrats. Of course, they wanted to emulate the upper class when it came to lifestyle and mannerisms. The question of legitimacy and right to inheritance became very pertinent. Naturally, when people have a lot to lose, they tend to be protective of their assets. A successful business owner would not want to financially support a child who was potentially fathered by another man. Hence, the preoccupation with the woman's sexual purity. When readers hear about a "Victorian novel", they immediately assume it is a drawing room drama featuring swooning ladies and dashing suitors. 

The repressive code of sexual conduct did not apply to the working and semi-criminal classes. Premarital cohabitation and out-of-wedlock procreation were fairly common in the lower social strata. Over thirty percent of working class brides were pregnant on their wedding day. If the father of the child refused to marry the young expectant mother, she would most likely leave the child at an orphanage. A more challenging alternative would be taking her love child and seeking employment at a different place where nobody knew her and she could fabricate a weepy young widow story. But, to make a long story short, working class women were not "shunned" for their sexual indiscretions the same way their more privileged sisters were. When you have no status to worry about, you focus on survival.  

Dealing with publishers
One of the most eye-opening experiences was dealing with publishers. I was shocked at how many of them had a problem with the idea of a 12-year old girl having intimate relations with her 20-year old male friend. I deliberately did not go into graphic details or specify whether the relationship was consummated in the traditional sense. I left it up to the readers to fill the gaps with their own imagination. Some of the publishers were not particularly keen on the idea of an underage girl engaging in any kind of sensual behavior. I've gotten responses like "Sorry, we do not do child porn." I was tickled by their usage of the word "porn". The market abounds with badly written bodice-rippers featuring some very graphic scenes, yet those books are not considered "porn" as long as the participants are over 18. Some romance publishers openly state on their submissions page that all characters who engage in sexual activities should be over 18. Apparently, publishers have a problem with historical accuracy. In 1850s there were not many 18-year old virgins in the working class. Some publishers actually told me they would consider my work if I bumped up the heroine's age to 18 and threw in a few steamy love scenes. A sexually active underage girl is automatically assumed to be a victim, and her partner is assumed to be an aggressor. 

Apparently, once you cross that 18 mark, the rules suddenly change, and the heroine can indulge in all sorts of kinky behavior. Under 18 - everything is forbidden. Over 18 - everything is allowed. While pitching my work to various publishers, I came to the conclusion that we live in a very prudish and hypocritical society that makes Victorians look progressive and open-minded. Americans have a bigger issue with sex than Victorians did. Note to publishers: If your readers enjoy depictions of threesomes and orgies, do not tell me they are "wholesome" or "have high morals". 

Fortunately, Tom Grundner, the late founder of Fireship Press, did not have a problem with the content. My first novel Wynfield's Kingdom was released in 2009. It has been recently re-released through Crossroad Press. 

The faces on the cover
I have spoken endlessly about my love for beautiful, interesting faces, and my habit of using actors and models of my choice for the covers as opposed to relying to stock images. Fortunately, my publishers have been very supportive of the idea. For the new cover of Wynfield's Kingdom I wanted to conduct a little experiment and use models that bear resemblance to other recognizable cinematic icons. The male model, Justin West, echoes of the heartthrob James Marsden. The female model, Hannah Biton, resembles Eva Green, the star of the cult show Penny Dreadful. I was hoping that the readers would make that connection. 

Purchase Link

A Tale of the London Slums

Welcome to 1830s Bermondsey, London's most notorious slum, a land of gang wars, freak shows, and home to every depravity known to man. Dr. Thomas Grant, a disgraced physician, adopts Wynfield, a ten-year-old thief savagely battered by a gang leader for insubordination. The boy grows up to be a slender, idealistic opium addict who worships Victor Hugo. By day he steals and resells guns from a weapons factory. By night he amuses filthy crowds with his adolescent girlfriend—a fragile witch with wolfish eyes. Wynfield senses that he has a purpose outside of his rat-infested kingdom, but he never guesses that he had been selected at birth to topple the British aristocracy.

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From the chaos of an extensive slum known as Bermondsey, Wynfield finds himself in the Crimea where he experiences a military campaign that makes Bermondsey look orderly. The spring of 1854 was filled with violence, deceit, and bereavement, and marked the end of Wynfield's reign as the king of the Bermondsey slums. His memory shattered and his perception of reality distorted, he falls under the influence of an unlikely patron-the ruthless Lord Lucan. Known to his Irish tenants as "the exterminator," Lucan plans to mold his ward into a brainwashed ally for his upcoming Crimean campaign. While in the company of some frightfully incompetent and arrogant generals, Wynfield travels to the Crimea as a junior officer in the British cavalry. There he catches a glimpse of the personal war between Lords Lucan and Cardigan, which results in the blunder known as the Charge of the Light Brigade, and discovers the darker side of the saintly Florence Nightingale.

Short-lived alliances with comrades who would never make it home to England, and haphazard sexual encounters with women he would never see again, challenge Wynfield's innate sense of loyalty. Having seen so many heroes trampled and so many cowards exalted, Wynfield must choose sides and, in so doing, shape the course of the rest of his life.

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