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Anne-Marie Vukelic talks to us about Caged Angel, Charles Dickens and Victorian novels

For those of us fascinated by Victorian history, who has not been educated, enlightened, and entertained in some way by the works of Charles Dickens?

During his lifetime he wrote fifteen major novels, drawing attention to the plight of the poor, the injustices of child labour, and the absurdities of the legal system. By raising public awareness of such matters he contributed to a number of social reforms.

My own interest in Dickens was sparked by a visit to the city of Rochester in 2005, where the author spent his final years. With its cobbled streets and crooked houses it is a city in which time appears to have stood still, and Dickens drew both characters and settings for his novels from this place which was very dear to his heart. My own time in Rochester motivated me to begin examining the author’s life in greater detail, and wondering how much of his work was biographical.

How vividly the story of Oliver Twist came to life when I learned that at the age of twelve, Dickens worked alongside other boys in a ‘Blacking’ factory under the guidance of a man named Bog Fagin. I discovered that in this same time period Dickens’s father was being held in the Marshalsea Debtors prison and the proud, solitary figure of William Dorrit came to my mind.

And what of Dickens’s heart? As a young man, it had been crushed by his first love, Maria Beadnell, who coldly referred to him as ‘Boy’. While standing in the shade of Restoration House – the inspiration for Miss Haversham’s Satis House – I thought of poor Pip cruelly spurned by Estella in Great Expectations. Yes, there is much of the pain and rejection that Dickens felt he had suffered in his youth that spilled from his pen onto the page.

By his own efforts, Dickens rose from humbling circumstances to author of great acclaim, but in studying his life I found myself curiously drawn to the shy, clumsy and somewhat disorganized wife who lived with this talented, impatient and restless man.

Little has been recorded about Catherine Dickens and yet, within the numerous pages that have been written about her famous husband, her voice appealed to me and so began the random jottings which eventually became my first novel, Far Above Rubies. Dickens’s world is traced from the perspective of a Victorian wife – the mother of ten children – who struggled through life quietly at the side of an exacting husband. When Dickens cast her aside in later years, he wrote a statement for the newspapers and, creating his own fiction, inferred that it was because she had some ‘peculiarity of character’. It was she who was to blame and not him.

My second novel, The Butterflies are Free, followed the fate of the Dickens children, the legacy of bearing the Dickens name and how their father’s secret affair with the young actress Ellen Ternan influenced their own relationships. The title is a quote taken from Dickens’s novel, Bleak House, and for me captured his wish to escape the life he found himself constrained by in his middle years.

Caged Angel, my forthcoming novel, was written as a result of my enduring interest in Dickens and the discoveries I made about some of his lesser-known contemporaries.

Caged Angel relates the story of the banking heiress, Angela Burdett-Coutts, who was considered a remarkable woman for her time in that she largely ignored what society expected of someone in her position, and chose instead to immerse herself in social issues of the day.

Dickens’s own interest in such matters made their friendship a natural one, and he was an ambassador for many of her projects, one of which was a home for former prostitutes.

Their backgrounds were completely different: Burdett-Coutts, the daughter of a baronet, had been raised on her family’s country estate. Dickens was the son of an improvident naval clerk, imprisoned for debt. Many of Angela’s equals could only have seen her in the context of her position in society, but with Dickens as her champion she was free to explore opportunities not usually open to women of her time.

Angela’s great wealth brought with it many unsolicited marriage proposals and unwanted suitors, the most persistent of these being the barrister Richard Dunn. Exploring newspaper archives and court records, I discovered how his enduring fixation with Angela became a frantic obsession. In a world largely dominated by men, there were no laws at the time to protect a woman from the term we are now familiar with as ‘stalking’.

The streets of nineteenth century London could not have provided a better setting for such a dark story to take place, and it is one by which readers of Victorian fiction are always excited.

I have an ongoing interest in the Victorian era for many reasons but partly because of its contradictions: the extremes of elegance and squalor, the veil of sexual morality twinned with hypocrisy, the contrast between the lives lived by Victorian men and women, and also experienced by those within the different class systems.

My interest in psychology and human emotions means that I am always curious about what drives an individual. What are their motives, their ambitions and inner thoughts? When writing the journal of Richard Dunn, capturing this aspect became even more challenging as Dunn’s thoughts descended into insanity.

When considering the time period in which to set a novel, the author has to consider the social attitudes of the day and how these will influence their characters. This becomes inevitably more interesting when the novel is set in the Victorian era, as so often an individual will find their own wishes going contrary to such attitudes and expectations.

All of the foregoing provides an author with an array of tools which lend themselves to a setting with tremendous atmosphere, a society from which one can draw intriguing plots and interesting characters. I think this is why Victorian fiction is still being written, and enjoyed by readers.

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