From childhood I was drawn to the strange yet beautiful Victorian Gothic style and it has defined all my great interests, loves and pursuits. Edgar Allan Poe became my patron saint and muse early in life, and the 1880s have remained my mental playground ever since. I could never extricate the Victorians from their ghost stories, so the time period and the paranormal are for me inextricably entwined. The problem with a lot of the paranormal and fantastical literature of the day is there sure are a lot of female victims. A lot of damsels in distress incapable of self-rescue.
While strong women abound in all manner of 19th century work in their own ways, examples of strong young women, especially in a paranormal and/or fantastical adventure who turn out to be the brave heroine rescuing her dashing "Knight in Distress"? Especially in a Gothic novel? Not so much.
Thankfully we have Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen these days in our modern teen lit, but I wanted to see bold women represented in a historical context, especially as paradoxically repressive as the 19th century. So in my quest to present a new take on some classic themes, I turned to YA for some classic reinvention.
YA is the most open and exciting space in which to reverse tropes, because you're dealing with the shift into adulthood, the first hero's journey; a time of huge conflict and possibility, a thrilling time to write about, especially if you're writing about it in a time when the word "teenager" did not exist. Until the 20th century there was a switch flipped from child to adult. Boom. One minute you're a little girl, the next minute, a bride. It was as jarring then as it is for many teens and young adults now, only then, young women didn't have a transitional time, they weren't given permission to just "be a teenager" for a while. The terror of instantaneous change and society's pendulum shift of expectation upon woman: virtuous, obedient child to virtuous obedient wife who must then HAVE a child, in such short order, adds huge conflict onto an already conflict-rich time period. And for the men the gender roles are just as specific and rigid, though their freedoms are far more expansive and their sins easily forgiven while a woman's are not.
By creating a space where my hero and heroine meet soul-first rather than body first, it deepens their bond nearly immediately and they meet as peers and partners. Society's demands take a back seat to the larger problem of a deadly curse. Yes, the world as I built it creates some insta-love but I hope to back it with utter openness forced to mature quickly. Mutual emotional vulnerability, accessibility and mutual care was vital for me in both male and female roles. I can't handle YA that doesn't create strong partnerships, no matter the sex of the partnerships. Co-depedency isn't partnership. Victorian women were forced to be co-dependent on husbands and men completely. By making it a Knight who is In Distress, I hope to present another possibility.
I love, *love* The Picture of Dorian Gray. It is the primary inspiration for Darker Still. However I do not like the role of Woman as relegated to lovelorn, suicidal creature. So I wanted to take everything I adore about Mr. Wilde's great masterpiece and throw two strong women, a teenage girl and her mentor, into the jaws of dark magic and write a story where the girl saves the guy. The girl is not an accessory, the girl is not a plot point, the girl, WITH her own wits, is The Only Hope.
The fact that my heroine Natalie suffers from a disability, Selective Mutism, proves another hurdle in a time period full of brick ceilings. Her condition is, I dearly hope, a reminder for all women, no matter what age, to literally and figuratively "find your voice" amidst a patriarchal society where women still struggle for equal pay, equal rights, equal power. We are not very different from the Victorians, friends, they teach me so much every day and I am blessed that they have chosen me as a channel to bring resonant hopes, dreams and ideas through time and to you, Dear Reader.
Each book in the Magic Most Foul saga will channel themes and tropes from famous Victorian paranormal fiction and inject a few bold young women into the pages of fantastical history. These are the sorts of things YA can make possible, and it's honestly what I feel I was put on this earth to do. Thankfully, for every damsel-in-distress written that refuses to take a chance at being her own prince, there are so many opportunities for other authors to come along and decide on what terms their characters' hero/heroine's/gender-neutral journey should be.
Leanna Renee Hieber is an actress, playwright, and award-winning, nationally best-selling author of Gothic Victorian fantasy novels for adults and teens. Darker Still: A Novel of Magic Most Foul, an Indie Next list pick and a Scholastic Book Fair “Highly Recommended” title, is a 2012 finalist in the Daphne du Maurier Award for excellence in Mystery/Romantic Suspense in the Historical Category. The sequel in the Magic Most Foul saga releases this November. A member of actors unions AEA and SAG-AFTRA, she lives in New York City with her real-life hero and their beloved rescued lab rabbit, and she's thrilled to be playing Deputy Kellion in the Auror’s Tale web-series. She loves nothing more than good Goth club, a finely tailored corset and a well-told ghost story. She tweets often @LeannaRenee.