JANE STEELE: Dressing 19th Century Divas

My first four novels all feature male narrators: Dr. John Watson (yes, that Dr. Watson) in Dust and Shadow and Timothy Wilde in the trilogy bearing his name.  I never found writing men difficult, mainly because scientists theorize men are homo sapiens, and as I happen to be of the same species, we share a heavily shaded Venn diagram of thoughts and feelings and interest in well-brewed beer.  Before penning Jane Steele, my new tale about a governess-turned-vigilante inspired by the classic Jane Eyre, I happily wrote about hardened rogues in muddied boots, never realizing I’d deprived myself of historical fiction’s headiest pleasure…

…dressing people up in fancy costumes.

Especially, dressing people up who can wield wit and weaponry with equal aplomb, as my incarnation of Jane can.  After so long wandering in the desert, I admittedly binged on pretty frocks when writing Jane Steele.  As if I’d gifted myself a whopping pile of paper dolls and went frenzied with the scissors, slavering all the while.

I’m no fan of gender binaries.  Let’s not pretend that world-renowned army doctor badass John Watson, he of transcontinental "experience," a heart of gold, and doubtless VERY capable hands, never noticed the silhouetted figure of a female.  My favorite such passage occurs in Doyle’s “The Man with the Twisted Lip”: “…the door flew open, and a little blonde woman stood in the opening, clad in some sort of light mousseline de soie, with a touch of fluffy pink chiffon at the neck and wrists.”  The man can survive Afghanistan, shoot a service revolver, and wax rhapsodic about neck fluff with the same tender finesse.

With Jane Steele, however, I glutted on fashion like a morning talk show host who’d run dry of celebrities, corralled a herd of pedestrians into the studio, and shoved them into makeover chairs.  I love fashion, and Jane Steele like Jane Eyre spends years as a penurious student and later governess.  The lack of food she suffered must have been bad enough, but what about the lack of pink chiffon?  The mind revolts.

So I started researching 1840s-1850s fashion.  My version of Jane embraces infamy, dispatches myriad villains, and acquires a small fortune—why shouldn’t she do so in French heels?  As an unrepentant style nerd (I once stood in line for the Met's Alexander McQueen exhibit for five hours), I wanted to invest her with real historical splendor.  Since words are inadequate to describe these outfits (especially when you’re wiping drool off your keyboard so frequently), here are a few quotes appearing in Jane Steele, matched with their historical inspirations.

“Mr. Thornfield chuckled.  He wore a swallowtail coat and a thick rust-coloured cravat—which I thought hardly fair, since my best governess disguise was a thing of drab dove-grey silk striped with a cream pattern and topped with a high lace collar, and it is beastly to be seated across from a bluntly handsome fellow when one looks about as captivating as gravel.”

 Collection: The State Historical Museum (Russia)

Collection: The State Historical Museum (Russia)

“It was the finest dress I had ever owned: dull silk, of a colour as much green as it was brown that made my eyes gleam like mahogany, painted asymmetrically with vines of delicate vermillion roses; along the bosom, the cinched waist, and the fully draped sleeves were barred pairs of emerald stripes.  A single cascade of tiny buttons dripped from neck to waist, and it occurred to me, seeing the mischievous tilt to my lips, that I had never looked better.”

 Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“This costume was all of the same patternless fabric, a shimmering fawn colour, but the detailing was exquisite—ten deep pleats, a plain band of the same fabric at the waist, and then it blossomed into fold after fold, like a modern woman’s dream of a Renaissance belle.”

 Collection: Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Collection: Los Angeles County Museum of Art

“Then I donned another of my fashionable frocks, a floral silk with a dramatic shawl collar, all save the white lace sleeves emerging from fabric printed in grey and silver and a blue which reminded me of Mr. Thornfield’s eyes.  Today is for you, I thought, wherever you are and however you fare, and was seized with such a longing that my breath caught.”

 Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Fashion is very much entangled in Jane’s feelings, obviously, and I do tend to think of clothing as a sort of armor when it’s well-selected—a daily broadcast to the world of acceptance, defiance, mood, taste, or whatever else we express when we stand backlit in doors clad in mousseline de soie, or you know...a Nirvana t-shirt. So whether your wardrobe runs to blue jeans or ball gowns, I hope you love your own skin and enjoy Jane Steele.  Clothes don’t make the woman—but under the proper circumstances, I think they can certainly make her day.