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Tasha Alexander | Reality Bites…or What Was It Really Like in Victorian England?

September 2, 2009

TASHA ALEXANDERTEARS OF PEARL Being a historical novelist has its perks and pitfalls. The perks? Being able to work in pajamas is probably my favorite. I love the travel that comes with the job–whether it’s when I’m on the road meeting readers or embarking on a research trip. I love being to stay up till four in the morning writing and getting to sleep late (mornings have never been good for me; I’m much more coherent in the middle of the night). And I love the reading my work requires–poring over diaries and letters written by Victorian woman, studying the history of the time.

It’s this perk that leads to a pitfall–a pitfall that is one of the hardest things to deal with when writing historical fiction. Often, when you study history, you find that the actual truth does not always match with modern ideas of what the past was like. We like to think we know the Victorians–how they were prudes who never let any female out of the house without a chaperone and admonished their daughters to lie back and think of England.

None of which is quite true. According to Michael Mason’s fantastic book, The Making of Victorian Sexuality, in the middle of the 19th century a third to half of English brides were pregnant at their weddings. Not what you expected, right? I was surprised. Just as I was surprised to read about how the servants mapped out the bedrooms assigned to guests at country house parties–the arrangements were organized so it would be easy for gentlemen to slip into their mistress’ rooms. The staff planned accordingly when delivering morning tea.

While working on Tears of Pearl, I started off with the prejudices and assumptions most westerners have about Ottoman culture. I set the book in Constantinople because I was fascinated with its exoticness. The last thing I expected to learn was of the significant roles played by Ottoman women in the government–the sultan’s harem was not, in fact, a debauched playground. Instead it was full of well-educated, intelligent women, most of whom were fluent in multiple languages. This was a society where upward mobility was possible, even for girls. One of the sultans brought into the harem a girl whose beauty struck him as she carried a bundle of laundry across a city square. She came to the palace, learned everything she could, and became the sultan’s favorite. When her own son inherited the throne, she was titled Valide Sultan–sultan’s mother–more powerful than many government ministers.

Want to know more about the ups and downs of being a historical author then click here.

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