did not mean to write this novel!
I was writing a novel about something else set in 1870 and although all my historical novels at least begin in London I always make myself look at whatever else was going on at the time: in England - and in the rest of the world since I come from the other side of it! This means I’m eternally coming across all sorts of interesting by-ways and avenues that I can’t always keep myself from exploring (even when the information is totally useless!)
Reading, for my own novel, the newspapers of 1870 I kept coming across something headlined ‘THE SCANDAL OF THE CENTURY’. So I thought I’d better be sure what the scandal of the century was about, in case I could use it as background. It was the trial of two minor gentlemen accused of sodomy: Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park who used to go about London dressed as women known as ‘Fanny’ and ‘Stella’. I read various books and articles and theses about them – but it all seemed too vague, no-one quite knew why something so famous, seemed to fizzle out. So I chucked it out as an idea of background for my novel.
Then, not long afterwards, I was sitting in the British Library reading something entirely different about Mr Gladstone the Prime Minister in 1870 when I suddenly came across a piece of information that so surprised me that I automatically stood up and said very loudly “WHAT?” and many readers stared. I turned red and went outside to compose myself. I then nearly had an even more embarrassing moment a few days later when I came across something about the Prince of Wales that was so utterly a connection to the court case that I felt a bit dizzy.
That was it: I was away: libraries, castles, cemeteries, Houses of Parliament, more libraries. Dorset. Nottingham. Wales. Westminster.
And then I had to force myself to leave the seduction of research and write the novel. I knew I was writing about – or even re-writing – gay history, but I also knew it would be impossible for me to write it from a ‘gay’ point of view. So, the story is told by a narrator but a couple of voices of real people (who I found in the trial records) keep popping in – I realised that their lives too must obviously have been deeply affected by this case. And so I decided they would slowly find out extraordinary things - just as I had. For months and months and months I was locked away writing, flying, piecing everything together. So many times had I been astounded by what I had found out, that I wasn’t really surprised to find that the book had been long-listed for the Ngaio Marsh Thriller Award – except it was me, surrounded by old books, who had been reading a thriller! And finally, although this is a work of fiction, I wanted to prove that I really had found this new evidence. I wanted to get permission to publish unpublished material.
Thereby hangs a tale. And if you want to know whether I was successful in getting to publish real letters written 144 years ago, you must read the Acknowledgments in The Petticoat Men…