I had a chance to interview Diana Forbes about her new book, Mistress Suffragette, which I recently reviewed on this site. Forbes’s novel takes place in the late nineteenth century Gilded Age, when the Women’s Movement was just starting. The setting is a compelling backdrop for her willful protagonist’s escapades.
Congratulations on the release of your debut book, Mistress Suffragette. What got you into writing historical fiction?
Thank you. I have always been interested in American history — particularly some of our untold stories. In the course of researching this book, I learned about the Rational Dress Movement, a little-known offshoot of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. And it just so happens that I have ancestors who were living in America during the time that the story takes place. I learned that two of my ancestors were tailors, and I began to wonder about the dark side of Industrialization and how it impacted people in my family.
Why did you decide to set your novel in the Gilded Age?
The Gilded Age was a golden era for some tycoons and business magnates. But for others, who lost their livelihoods during the Panic of 1893, the period had a dark underbelly. I thought it might be interesting to have a heroine who becomes familiar with both sides — the gilded side and the tarnished side. It was important to me that her father was personally affected by the Panic. His shift in fortune is what sets the chain of events in motion. When Penelope is forced to leave Gilded Age Newport, Rhode Island, and lower her standard of living several notches, this also enables her to explore the other side. Beyond that, I live in Manhattan, where vestiges of the Gilded Age abound. When I walk down Fifth Avenue today, I not only see the department stores and the glitz, I can sense how it used to look when it was dotted with brownstones.
Your main character is torn between traditional and newly emerging roles for women. Explain her situation.
Penelope grew up assuming that she would get married — most young women back then did. Her parents arranged a marriage for her with a very distant cousin, whom Penelope thinks she likes and can perhaps grow to love. But when that all changes, she is forced to leave her cocoon. At first she is extremely reluctant to work for the Suffrage Movement or have anything to do with it. It feels foreign to her. She gets drawn into it, though, through a special skill that she has rather than any huge attachment to the cause. This, to me, explains how women often take on careers. Sometimes a career takes hold when one’s other plans fall through.
You infuse a lot of humor into the story, even as it deals with dire situations. What was your intention?
Having a good sense of humor, I believe, helps people conquer obstacles. It takes the curse off of bad situations. I thought a lot about humor during the course of writing Mistress Suffragette and tried to have several of the characters be funny, but in different ways. The way Penelope’s mother is funny is dramatically different than the way Penelope is.
The book is rich with so many period details. What were some of your best sources in researching the Gilded Age?
I believe in firsthand research, wherever possible. So, if the buildings still exist, I made a point of going to visit them. I took photos and would also buy books about the buildings if possible. I also looked for items such as menus, diaries, and immigration records. I dug through my own box of ancestral records, re-read letters by my ancestors, and looked over and over at family photos. I love going to costume exhibits and historical re-enactments, as well. They help make the time period three-dimensional for me, and then I set about trying to capture my love for the era on the page.
It’s striking how many of Penelope’s challenges still affect women today. Did you intend for Mistress Suffragette to have universal overtones?
Yes! I believe there is a reason that writers of historical fiction choose their time period, and that it always has some bearing on the present time. Throughout history, women have had fewer choices than men. I cannot tell you the number of single women, who upon reading my novel during a writing class, would turn to me and say, “Wow! It was just as hard for women back then.”
Will there be a sequel?
I finished the third draft of the sequel, and one chapter of it was a finalist in the Saturday Evening Post “Great American Fiction” contest, which I am really excited about. I hope it’s not a spoiler alert to say that I envision three or four books in the series — because I love the characters and the time period.
Learn more at DianaForbesNovels.com.