The first book in a new historical series set in Victorian London, Alex Reeve’s The House on Half Moon Street has been described as ‘An ingenious, pacy mystery with a sympathetic hero’ (Irish Times) and ‘A thrilling and page-turning adventure with a main character you will be rooting for all the way’ (Historical Novel Society).
Leo Stanhope. Avid chess player; assistant to a London coroner; in love with Maria; and hiding a very big secret.
For Leo was born Charlotte, the daughter of a respectable reverend. But knowing he was meant to be a man – despite the evidence of his body – and unable to cope with living a lie any longer, he fled his family home at just fifteen and has been living as a man ever since: his secret known to only a few trusted people.
But then Maria is found dead and Leo is accused of her murder. Desperate to find her killer and under suspicion from all those around him, he stands to lose not just the woman he loves, but his freedom and, ultimately, his life.
As big fans of The House on Half Moon Street, we at NB Magazine are very pleased to share Alex Reeve’s essay on the significance and scope of the neo-Victorian novel:
The Power of the Neo-Victorian Novel
Neo-Victorian novels occupy a curious niche within the historical fiction genre. They present as if they’ve been written in the nineteenth century when, in fact, they are modern creations. So why do writers like me bother? Aren’t there enough actual Victorian novels, without creating pretend ones?
The neo-Victorian model has been followed by Kaite Welch, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Peter Ackroyd and Caleb Carr, who include issues in their work not typically central to Victorian writing, e.g. racial equality and queer rights. For me, the greatest exponent of the art is Sarah Waters; Fingersmith brilliantly adopts the tradition of Victorian ‘sensation’ novels by writers such as Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, with their energetic plots, sudden twists and themes of sex and crime. And yet, Waters adds something that they could not: a lesbian love story.
Which isn’t to say that LGBTQ+ issues didn’t appear in Victorian literature at all, but they were generally only implied: Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations includes a homoerotic scene between Pip and Herbert; Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is, inevitably, tacitly gay (and was more obviously so prior to his publisher editing it); The String of Pearls by Rymer and Prest describes pairings of men and women in romantic terms; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde explore homoerotic desire through the creation of a ‘monster’, an alternate self.
Many of these gay sub-texts were sufficiently well understood in their day to gain a curious acceptance, rather as scientific paradigms accommodate contrary evidence. More overt representations were regarded as pornography, such as The Sins of the Cities and the Plain, an ecstatic gay romp believed to be by Jack Saul, and My Secret Life by ‘Walter’, which includes tales of lesbian sex and desire.
What modern, neo-Victorian novels are able to do is make explicit and mainstream what was previously implicit or marginalised, giving a voice to those who were previously muted.
One such group is transgender people. They’re not represented in Victorian literature at all, and yet we know they existed. Gender reassignment surgery and hormone therapy weren’t available, but there’s clear evidence in court records and contemporaneous newspaper articles of people learning to use gender expression – choice of clothes, tone of voice, posture and so on – to present as their chosen gender. For example, James How was a trans man who lived with his wife for 34 years, running a pub in Poplar in the mid-18th century. In 1856, Edward de Lacy Evans left Ireland as a woman and arrived in Australia as a man. Harry Stokes was a trans man brick-setter in Whitehaven who, according to the Whitehaven News of 1859, ‘could lift a weight, spread the mortar, and set a brick with the best of them’. Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park were tried in 1870 for dressing as women in public. (It’s not clear whether they would consider themselves to be transgender or not, and they’re not around to ask.) Mary Jane Furneaux became a trans con-man in 1882. Best known of all, James Barry, a trans man, rose to become the second-most senior doctor in the British Army in 1857. Of course, there must have been a great many more people who we don’t know about because they lived their lives in peace and obscurity.
It seemed to me to be wrong that they existed in real life but weren’t represented in literature, so I decided I had to fill that gap. I started to write the neo-Victorian novel that became The House on Half Moon Street.
However, I faced a huge issue: cultural appropriation. I’m not transgender, so I wasn’t certain I had the right to tell this story. After a lot of writerly contortions trying to solve the problem, I gave myself two rules.
The first was that this wouldn’t be a novel about transitioning, or even about being trans, it would be a novel about a man who happened to be trans. My central character, Leo Stanhope, loses the love of his life, a tragedy anyone might face, but her death isn’t caused or solved by Leo being trans. He has a unique perspective but he’s not only a trans man, he’s a rounded human, with all the flaws, hopes and fears of anyone else.
My second rule was that I would get the views of trans people, and if they didn’t think I’d created something worthwhile, I would delete it. Among others, I approached The Beaumont Society, a wonderful charity run for and by trans people, who were incredibly patient and supportive. In fact, so far, I’ve had almost no resistance from the trans community and a huge amount of encouragement. Most people have said that’s it’s great to see more diversity in mainstream novels, and that we should see every kind of people represented as a matter of course.
And that, for me, is at the heart of the neo-Victorian concept: who owns history? It’s easy (and lazy) to believe that the established literary classics represent ‘truth’ and that the world has changed beyond recognition in the last hundred and fifty years. The forces of religion, morality, class and economics that oppressed minority groups in the nineteenth century are the very reason they don’t appear much in the literature. I believe that we owe it to those brave people to represent them, even long after their deaths, to show the world that they existed, that they had agency in their own lives and that humanity was as rich and diverse then as it is now.
Alex Reeve is the author of The House on Half Moon Street, out in paperback on 27th December 2018, and is working on a PhD in neo-Victorian literature at the University of Surrey.