Thursday, May 1, 2008

A Brief Conversation with Lucy Sussex

Like many sf writers, Lucy Sussex is also a scholar in addition to writing fiction. I recently had this conversation with her.

Timmi: Could you tell us, please, about the "woman of mystery" who signed herself as "W.W" or "Waif Wander" and about the research project you and linguist John Burrows undertook that involved her?

Lucy: Her name was Mary Helena Fortune, and she was probably the first woman to specialize in crime fiction, writing the longest early detective serial known, "The Detective's Album," from 1867-1908. It comprised over 500 stories/novelettes, all published under the pseudonym of W. W. For more feminine writing, like her (unreliable) memoirs and some quite gothic melodramas, one called "Clyzia the Dwarf," she used the name Waif Wander, apparently a self-description. The connection between the two pseudonyms was not revealed until the 1880s, and her real name did not emerge until the next century, in the 1950s. She wrote quite unknown to her large reading public, who had no idea who she was.

Pseudonyms were common with Victorian women writers, such as Charlotte Bronte (Currer Bell) and George Eliot. But none were quite as secretive as Fortune. It involved concerted archival research to establish that she was born a Mary Wilson in Belfast, Ireland, of Scottish ancestry, emigrated to Canada with her father and married a surveyor, Joseph Fortune. She subsequently emigrated to Australia, to join her father George Wilson on the gold-diggings. In 1858 she married a policeman, Percy Brett, from whom she gained much of the knowledge for her crime writing. She had two sons, one by Fortune, the second born in Australia between the two marriages.

The complications of this particular life narrative was that Brett later remarried, and that divorce was very hard to obtain at the time. It seems that Fortune left her first husband in Canada, had an illegitimate son in Australia, and comitted bigamy when she married Brett. The most likely explanation of her move to Australia was that she was running away from Fortune, who would have inevitably otherwise gained custody of their child in any formal separation.

These secrets made Fortune a "scarlet woman" in terms of conventional Victorian morality. Small wonder she kept her identity hidden, as it could have affected her living from writing. In the 1890s the mores had begun to change, and she was described as a "bohemian." But she and her surviving son had paid a price--he became a jailbird, and she was alcoholic, living in defacto relationships.

I edited her memoirs, and later a book of her short crime stories.

[Timmi: The memoirs, The Fortunes of Mary Fortune, have been published by Spinifex Press. The book of short fiction, The Detectives' Album: Stories of Crime and Mystery from Colonial Australia, has been published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box.]

Fortune began writing crime stories apparently as a response to "inauthentic" crime memoirs by the writer James Skipp Borlase. They went on to collaborate on a short story serial, published anonymously. I wanted to know which stories had been written by her and which by Borlase. Professor John Burrows of the University of Newcastle had developed a software program which looked at writers in terms of stylistic nuances, and could identify and quantify differences at the grammatical level. We fed the disputed stories through, and compared them to works definitely by Borlase and Fortune. Not only was Fortune's early work identified, but an early story claimed by Borlase, "Mystery and Murder," proved to be by her hand.

I have just used that story as the basis for a science fiction tale, "Mist and Murder," which won a Sir Julius Vogel award. It is set in the New Ceres universe, and features a female detective, as well as her sidekick, who is disguised as a man and writes detective series.

Timmi: In your interview with Maureen Kincaid Speller, which was published in your Conversation Pieces collection Absolute Uncertainty, you make the fascinating comment:

it is actually easier for a modern writer to imitate a nineteenth-century woman, than a man from the same era. The only way to do the latter was to utterly immerse yourself in overheated, overwrought masculine Victorian prose —which was like learning to swim in jelly. Once you had the mindset, or had set yourself inside an ornate jelly mould of the era, then you could do it. But I still don’t think you can ever really get inside the mind of someone from the past.

Could you unpack some of that for us? I'm fascinated by the idea that the prose of a Victorian woman is closer to modern sensibilities than the prose of a Victorian man. What are some of the differences between them? And given that so many nineteenth-century women wrote under male names, I'm wondering whether you'd peg pseudonymous women's writing as male or female? (And incidentally, I wholeheartedly agree that you can't ever really get inside the mind of someone from the past.)

Lucy: As John Burrows has discovered, when searching for quantifiable differences in style, there are yawning gaps in gender in C18th-19th writers. It has to do with education. Men went to grammar school and had formal habits of prosody literally beaten into them. Women were taught by governesses or not at all. Autodidactic men and women thus wrote far less elaborately than the gentleman--which makes them much more accessible to modern readers, who get impatient when a spade is described as "an agrarian or horticultural device favoured by sons of hoary-handed toil." In a project I'm involved in with ship's diaries, a man and a woman travel on the same boat, but while she describes the departure in one simple sentence, he meanders on for half a page, with classical allusions. The differences tend to level out with the reforms in schooling from the mid-century onwards, but are still present.

Even now computer analysis can identify gendered differences in writing, style being as distinctive as DNA.

Timmi: Having edited a volume of Fortune's memoirs and another of her crime fiction, are you now done with her, or do you have more such projects in the works?

Lucy: I'm still finding works of hers...

Timmi: And are there any other C19th writers you're working on?

Lucy: I'm finishing two books at the moment, one a collection of C19th travel writing, the other a study of the first women to write crime and mystery fiction. Must find a publisher for the latter...

Timmi: You often use historical themes or interests in your science fiction tales, which interests me a lot (particularly since I sometimes do myself). Most sf writers approach history by writing alternate versions or secret histories. Your approaches strike me as more interrogative and playful. Would you care to comment about that vis-a-vis particular stories?

Lucy: Alternate histories are a bit like historical novels--heaps of research, but often the sense of the time itself is missing. And depend on it, some detail will be wrong, so that you will get a pedantic but perfectly justified note of complaint from some local historian. Even a good writer might not know that when the Victorians mentioned lovemaking, it wasn't referring to sex but verbal or written courtship or flirtation. Or the values of our time are imperfectly hidden in the novel, so that the heroine is improbably feminist or improbably keen on oral sex (often in novels by men, surprise).

It's more fun to interrogate a text, like the time I had a go at the Australian song "Waltzing Matilda." I decided I didn't believe a word of it. So I introduced a very unreliable narrator, and an alternate explanation of the song's narrative, guaranteed to annoy any number of people. Here fantasy met history, with I hope the notion conveyed that the grand narratives of history are not necessarily the only ones. I similarly took Mary Fortune's story "Mystery and Murder," kept the plot but introduced a female detective (something she very rarely used) and an alternate murder explanation. Thus in my "Mist and Murder" I teased out a subtext in the original, which had really bothered me. Most fun was learning how to write in the C18th mode--Latinate roots and what I can only describe as using words now more usually known in their noun forms, but as verbs. Mentally plumbing for the more decorated and formal modes of expression rather than the colloquial and terse. By trying to replicate the language I think I got a sense of the mind-set. But I'd never try writing in Middle English!

Timmi: Ah, I think you must be talking about "Matilda Told Such Dreadful Lies," which appears in Absolute Uncertainty. Needless to say, I'm looking forward to reading "Mist and Murder"!

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