Mar 23 2011
Faye Booth’s title aptly captures several aspects of her novel: there’s Lydia, the newest hire in a London brothel; Henry, a doctor who must break laws to obtain cadavers for his medical students; and then there’s the Victorian pornography angle. Warning to HEA purists? this is probably not your book. But if you like your historicals with plenty of grit, Trades of the Flesh steers clear of Mayfair ballrooms in favor of London’s seediest lanes.
A six-word memoir for your protagonist, Lydia: Multitasking in least savoury ways imaginable.
The original “triggers” or inspiration points for this story: I’ve been fascinated with the dark side of history ever since I was a child and my school took us on a trip to Lancaster Castle. They had a scold’s bridle there (modelled by a dummy head), and there was something compelling about it; something that brought the harshness of the past to life. Obviously I didn’t learn about Victorian prostitution and porn until quite some time later, but after reading a variety of fiction and non-fiction on the subject, I knew I wanted to write my own novel about a “ladybird” of the period. Why connect the sex industry with anatomy and surgery? It fuses taboo subjects that are generally thought of as complete opposites, and yet there is a correlation – both are ‘trades of the flesh’, after all, and both are rarely spoken of in ‘polite society’. I also slotted a couple of surnames based on other ‘trades of the flesh’ in there as well: Lydia’s surname is Ketch (like the famous hangman), while the “abbess” (brothel keeper) Kathleen’s is Tanner.
Your favorite line or moment in the book: Honestly? They aren’t the most dramatic moments, but I’m very fond of the scenes in which Lydia just chats with one or both of her fellow prostitutes Mary and Daisy. I like the dry, understated wit that passes between them – it’s very typical of northern England, where the story is set. The scene in The Old Bull at the beginning is a good example:
“…the Ripper’s busy in London, ain’t he? If fellows come up here, they come up for business – cotton or something. And we’re not street girls; they seem to be the ones he cuts up. He’d never get a chance at our place: one scream and we’d all be in there. Unless it was Daisy, of course. We’re used to that.’ “Funny bugger,’ Daisy sniped.
…as is this scene between Lydia and Mary later on, in which Lydia reveals that she’s recently been introduced to the joys of “the French vice” (oral sex) as performed on the lady:
She hesitated, before deciding to ask the question she’d been wanting to ask all day. “Here, have you ever had one . . . you know . . . put his mouth down there, like?’” She flicked her gaze down her skirt, and looked back up at Mary, whose sapphire eyes were twinkling with undisguised mirth. “You’re telling me you’ve only just had one go French on you? You’re pulling my leg!”
“Keep your voice down, will you? No, I’m not pulling your leg.”
“I must remember to thank Mr Shadwell on your behalf next time I see him.”
“You dare.” Oh, where the hell’s she got to with the grub?”;
What’s your take on Henry? Do you see him as “typical” for a man of his time, or something better?
Yes, Henry is a tough one to call, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed writing him so much – he is absolutely flawed (he is often insensitive and loses sight of the means in pursuit of the end; he’s rather egotistical and of course he does embrace the double standards of his time as far as his attitude to marital fidelity goes), and yet in a lot of ways he can be seen as progressive. As he says himself, the scientific work he does leads to valuable medical progress and he has no time for irrational superstition that holds such progress back; and in his relationship with Lydia we can see that in some respects he actually has more respect for women than a lot of his contemporaries – he cares about her sexual pleasure (he doesn’t just use her like an inflatable doll made of flesh), and also about her as a person; they have a genuine bond and he helps her with her ambitions. And this is a woman who wouldn’t just be dismissed in terms of her gender at the time – her profession would have gone against her too. But Henry doesn’t dismiss her. So he’s a contradiction, really, which makes him feel real and alive for me, and it’s hard to pigeonhole him as either fitting the classic image of the Victorian man or being more modern – like most people in most times, he’s a mixture of good and bad qualities.
Tell us about the moment when the gravedigger tips his hat to Lydia, who is dressed as a “respectable” widow. She realizes it’s the first time she’s been afforded this commonplace courtesy, and it’s a rare glimpse of vulnerability in her.
Funnily enough, that wasn’t in the original draft of the book. It actually came about during the edit, when my editor Will suggested that the ‘recce scene’ in the cemetery could be extended to allow for a clearer picture of the area (and a little creepy suspense!), and he offered a few suggestions for things that could happen, including (if I recall correctly) Lydia running into a real weeping widow, or indeed a gravedigger. I decided to go with the latter (and thought it might be particularly unsettling if he was standing in a half-dug grave at the time of the meeting), and from there it occurred to me that a stranger seeing Lydia dressed in mourning weeds without any makeup would almost certainly treat her in a different manner than she was used to, so the removal of his hat evolved from there. I’m glad you picked up on how much that experience unsettles Lydia, because that was the immediate impression I got from it as well – it was one of those ‘revelation’ moments when you’re writing something down (in this case, mine and Will’s plan to expand the recce scene as suggested and include a meeting with a gravedigger) and you suddenly get an extra detail (the hat) that seems to just drop down into your head; something that makes all the difference in the scene. And it all came from an editor’s suggestion – a good editor is invaluable in so many ways!
Trades shows a world where it’s difficult for women to make truly empowering choices. What’s the thing that makes Lydia successful where her sister, for example, meets far different consequences?
Ah yes, I was conflicted about poor Annabel’s fate from the beginning – I actually felt quite guilty about what happened to her. Why did it happen to her in particular? To a certain extent, I think she was just unlucky, which is certainly a disturbing thought (as humans, I think it’s natural for us to want to believe that there’s always something we can do to prevent disaster, but sometimes I really think some people are just in the wrong place at the wrong time – a harsh and unforgiving idea). Lydia herself could have been similarly unlucky at one point – the scene in which she is attacked, for instance, could have turned out much worse for her had her luck been different. If there is a personality trait Lydia has that Annie is lacking that could have contributed to their respective fates, I think it’s probably cynicism – Lydia is used to expecting the worst from everyone, and while that certainly has a negative impact on her ability to form any sort of healthy relationship with anyone, it does act as an internal ‘advance warning’ when she’s around people who could cause her harm. She’s wary of Kendall from the moment she meets him, and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to imagine that he could be a threat to a woman if he was alone with her.
Annie’s childhood in the introduction house with Lydia has certainly made her wary of men (I think it probably gave her a complex about them, actually – I don’t think she would ever have married, say), but the crucial difference is that Annie seems to believe that if she can just get out of a working class environment and into a middle class home, it will all be different. So perhaps her determination to believe that prevented her from running from a dangerous situation sooner – quite early on, she realises that all is not well (see her obvious discomfort when she and Lydia meet in Winckley Gardens), but she seems to tell herself that her fears are not justified because of the environment she’s in: “This is a wonderful opportunity for a girl like me – I’m a governess! I shouldn’t complain”. Of course, none of this justifies what happens to Annie, but if we’re comparing the personalities of the Ketch sisters and how they might have influenced the way their stories played out, I think that’s probably the key difference – I believe Lydia would have listened to her gut no matter what environment she was in, and got out of there sooner, while Annabel keeps trying to convince herself that people from ‘good’ backgrounds (note inverted commas!) wouldn’t do anything bad or criminal. Lydia’s suspicion of people is an equal opportunities thing!
Your paying job before and after publication: Writing is all I do now, although I used to be a veterinary nurse, which came in handy for the scenes of surgery and postmortems (autopsies), although for the latter I also consulted a friend of mine who is training to be a forensic pathologist.
A childhood reading experience that influenced you: I’d have to say the first historical novel I ever read. It was by Penelope Lively and it was called Fanny and the Monsters. I must have been about seven or eight when I read it – it’s a collection of three stories about a Victorian girl aged about nine or ten, who is very intellectual and a bit of a tomboy, and therefore finds the gender roles of her day chafing. She’s very scientifically minded and likes to study frogspawn and tell her decidedly uninterested governess the Latin names of flowers, and gets into trouble with her father for discussing Darwin’s theory of evolution at the dinner table. (Fanny can’t understand why – she likes monkeys and finds the idea of being related to them rather exciting; something I related to then and still can.) Looking back, that was the first time I encountered the sort of book I still love to read and write: one set in the past, with an unconventional female protagonist at the centre of the story, and I actually gave one of my own characters (from my third novel) the middle name of Frances in Fanny’s honour.
Writing advice you’re glad you followed or ignored: I can’t remember where I read it or who it was attributed to, but I like the line “Think of a book you wish existed, then write it yourself”. Also, when Kim was checking my submission letter for Mirrors, she told me that if I got a rejection, I just picked the wrong person to send it to. When you’re going through the purgatory of submissions and rejections, that seems rather difficult to believe, but she was right – somewhere out there, there were people who would see potential in my work. Finally, it’s not really writing-specific, but it never hurts to commit to memory any anecdotes you see, hear or read about people who are now well-recognised in their particular field being dismissed and rejected in their early days. The other day, I was watching a documentary about Rowan Atkinson (I’m a huge Blackadder fan), and his agent said that he was once asked why he was “wasting his time with such a talentless child”, and told that “pigs would be flying in formation over London before Atkinson became a star”. It’s wonderful when people like that are proven spectacularly wrong, isn’t it?
Three sources of inspiration for you: History in all its elegant and grubby glory, people who go against the grain for the society they live in, challenging the stereotypes many people today have regarding past generations.
Trades of the Flesh is Faye’s second book. It was just released in the U.S., so leave a comment if you’d like to win a copy. Alyson H. does the Intro Interviews, and can be contacted at DAIntroInterview AT gmail DOT com.