As I have mentioned in the biography section, my doctoral work on Samuel Johnson, his Misella essays, and my teaching of those essays influenced me to try turning those essays into a novel (Johnson’s original essays are included in the Appendix). I was haunted by Misella’s story and wanted to expand it—adding and developing more characters and events; making Misella less passive, though still a prostitute; giving her a daughter whom Isobel plots to take from her. I have long been intrigued by Johnson and his interest in the passions that motivate us—hope & fear, love & hate, pride, avarice, and envy, which he calls the most tormenting and hateful vice. We can see all of these at play in his brief Misella essays.
Were you intimidated by Johnson’s image and reputation as a masterful writer and thinker?
Yes! I had a difficult time at first finding the audacity to build upon his plot. I kept apologizing to him in my mind for desecrating his work. It took a while for me to own the project. My writing group helped me get beyond that block. “Forget about Johnson,” they’d tell me, “this is your story now.” But it did take a long time to reach that point. And I could justify my effort by telling myself that perhaps I would help a new group of readers discover Johnson and maybe want to find out more about him.
Is that why you created the character of Ben Turner in Johnson’s image?
Yes, that was part of my motivation, but also Johnson himself was such a fascinating and unique character. And so many people who knew him well wrote detailed descriptions of his appearance, his quirks, his adamant defense of his ideas, his incredible knowledge and curiosity, his wit, especially James Boswell in his extraordinary biography of Johnson’s life. Anyone who has read it will recognize how much I have borrowed from Boswell’s minute depiction of Johnson.
What did you enjoy most about writing the novel?
The research. I made several trips to London to work in the Rare Books Room of the British Library, an 18th-century treasure trove for me and a wonderful, comfortable place with helpful staff. I stayed in student housing for the University of London, converted Victorian townhouses, which were fairly inexpensive and conveniently located to the Library.
I also had the chance to visit the Carrow House Textile Museum in Norwich, England, which contains many 18th-century gowns, shoes, and accessories actually worn during that time: open-robed sack dresses of French silk brocade worn like a coat over side hoops tied around the waist, with matching petticoats. The front piece of the bodice, called a stomacher, hooked on to the dress separately. The sleeves were often made of Dresden pulled lace, as many as three for fullness, sometimes with weights sewn in so they draped nicely. A lace scarf was usually added at the neck. For underclothes, a woman wore only a linen shift, very loose to the knees, and over that laced whalebone stays — stitched rows of cloth containing strips of whalebone set close together. The finished stays were molded into shape with a hot iron. The stays laced up the back (up the side for pregnant women), but also had an opening in the front for a “busc bone” of carved wood or scrimshawed whalebone which kept the front of the corset smooth and rigid.
Pierre Grossley, a Frenchman traveling in England during the 18th-century, provides a provocative (and humorous) description of the stays which he calls, “a sort of whalebone waistcoat which just reaches to the breast. Two ribbands from the fore to the hind part keep it on without bridling or putting any constraint upon the shoulders. These ribbands generally falling upon the arms the upper part of the body disengaged from all vesture and ligature receives and is benefitted by the overplus of nourishment which the compression of the lower part distributes to it.”
Children at this time were put in stays as soon as they began to walk in order to give them an upright carriage. Here’s what Dr. Pringle had to say in 1775 about the “wasp-waisted ladies” — he called four of his patients “martyrs to that folly and when they were opened it was evident that their deaths were occasioned by strait lacing.”
What surprised you the most during your research?
In reading the Old Bailey Sessions Papers from 1740-1760, the time period I was interested in, I was surprised to discover that prostitution itself was never prosecuted, though prostitution was rampant in London. Prostitutes were arrested for thievery, not prostitution, and were treated harshly. One young woman, for example, who had stolen one silk handkerchief (obviously from a customer), was sentenced to seven years banishment to the Colonies. Pierre Grosley’s description of these “women of the town” confirms that prostitution was encouraged, not prosecuted:
“At night-fall, they range themselves in a file in the footpaths of all the great streets; low taverns serve them as a retreat — there is always a room set apart for this purpose. Their business is so far from being considered unlawful that the list of those eminent is publicly cried about the streets, exact features, qualifications. A new list is published every year called the New Atlantis.”
I also learned about some cases of infanticide. These usually involved a young servant girl accused by others of deliberately killing her newborn. It helped her case if she could provide a witness who would testify that she had made preparations for the baby — clothing, blankets, etc., which helped to prove she intended to keep the child and that its death was accidental or natural.
Justice was harsh and swift in an effort to deter crime because England didn’t have a police force, only justices of the peace who prosecuted offenses rather than prevented them. London was guarded at night by old men chosen from the dregs of society, the lamplighters who patrolled the streets crying the hour.