Secret Spy Business, Victorian Style

The Remarkables, my current Work-in-Progress, won the Historical Novel Society Australasia‘s Elizabeth Jane Corbett Mentorship Prize, and I couldn’t be prouder! Here’s what the judge had to say about my story:

“This highly original piece was instantly engaging. Not only did it feature excellent writing, strong characterisation and a clear sense of place, but its energy and wit made it a joy to read and I could see it appealing strongly to a young adult audience.”

Dr Rachel Nightingale

I am chuffed to the moon and back with this wonderful opportunity to work with mentor Dr Wendy Dunn, who writes fabulous historical fiction set in Tudor times.

Here’s an excerpt from a fun interview with me on the Historical Novel Society Australasia’s website. I was asked to explain my passion for the the Victorian Era:

The Victorian Era is a wunderkammer of the weird and the wonderful. It was the heyday of the creepy spectacle with hypnotists, magicians, spiritualists and freak shows vying for audiences. Mourning jewellery and death photos were de rigueur. Taxidermy was all the rage, and mummy unwrappings provided entertainment at dinner parties. Besides being morbid, Victorians were ingenious, introducing to the world trains and automobiles, telegraphs and telephones, and game-changing things like anaesthesia, postage stamps, and flushing toilets. 

Above this cauldron of ingenuity and industry sat the Grumpy Cat of queens, Victoria, whose scowl could trip a pig. But what a fascinating woman she was—ruler of a flourishing empire and mother of nine slightly dysfunctional offspring. Contrary to public perception, she was amused, wielding both a wicked sense of humour and a raucous laugh. Between the enigmatic queen and her extended family, there’s enough material to keep a herd of historical novelists busy for a lifetime.

Ali Stegert, From The HIstorical Novel Society Australasia’s website.

The Remarkables

This project has been on and off my desk since 2015. Its original form was a middle grade novel called The Thief’s Daughter, a wild and weird fractured fairytale about a girl who lived on an island in the Thames with Gilda her pet gosling. As soon as my plucky protagonist revealed herself, I was so smitten I changed the story to let her voice shine.

It became Winifred Weatherby Saves the Century, set in 1899 London. However, I kept encountering difficulties of agency. An eleven-year-old, well-educated girl at the turn of the century could not plausibly do the things I needed her to do. So I moved the project to the back burner to allow the idea’s bones to simmer and soften… for a few years.

In the meantime, I continued researching (some interesting references are listed below) and taking notes for the project. Not long ago, I wondered what would happen if I made Winnie older, say 17 — and BOOM, as they say, — I found my solution. The story pieces finally fell into place. OMGosh! So much fun.

The story was reborn as The Remarkables, a YA girl genius / spy academy / historical fiction mashup set in 1889, a decade earlier than originally planned. Loosely speaking, it’s like Enola Holmes meets The Crown. Here’s a teaser:

The Beacon Academy for Exceptionally Bright & Promising Young Ladies is the one place in all of the British Empire that welcomes Winifred Weatherby’s quirks and nurtures her remarkable mind — until her beloved scientist Papa disappears and is presumed to be running from debtors and the law. His disgrace leads to Winnie’s sudden expulsion from the prestigious Academy.

But a mysterious duchess from an equally mysterious Agency recruits Winnie to be the final member of a clandestine group, Her Majesty’s Secret League of Remarkable Young Ladies – AKA, The Remarkables, whose mission is to protect the ageing queen from plotters who’ve infiltrated the royal residences to steal imperial secrets and do in the indomitable Queen Victoria. 

The Empress may have met her match in the wisecracking girl genius who blazes through maths class but bumbles through afternoon tea.

Winnie’s special brand of genius will assist The Remarkables to secretly protect the irascible Queen, but she’s also hopeful of clearing her father’s name – and finding him somewhere in Paris.

Set in a late Victorian spy academy for girls, The Remarkables is packed with brain-teasing mystery, luscious lashings of Victoriana, and oodles of clotted cream.

Having a Ball, Victorian Style

The truly fun part of writing against a historical backdrop is weaving in tantalising tidbits. The Remarkables includes many fascinating details, including interesting personalities – Queen Victoria herself and her staff, for example. Actual historical happenings tint the mood, like the bubbling anticipation in the lead-up to the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, and the lingering dread felt by London’s women in the months following a certain serial killer’s bloody spree.

The 1889 Exposition Universelle (World Expo) featured the Eiffel Tower’s debut.

Favourite Resources

Here are a few of the resources I’ve mined for the current version and since the beginning of the project. I starred the standout titles:

  • Self-Defense for Gentlemen and Ladies: A 19th Century Treatise on Boxing, Kicking, Grappling, and Fencing with the Cane and Quarterstaff, by Colonel Thomas H. Monstery
  • * Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking: The Royal Marriages That Shaped Europe by Deborah Cadbury.
  • The Spectacle of Illusion: Magic, the paranormal & the complicity of the mind, by Matthew L. Tompkins, Wellcome
  • Chatelaines: Utility to Glorious Extravagance, by Genevieve Cummins
  • *A London Peculiar: The London You Shouldn’t Miss, by Rafe Heydel-Mankoo
  • *Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant, by Shrabani Basu
  • Romance Reader’s Guide to Historic London, by Sonia Rouillard
  • The Queen’s Houses: Royal Britain at Home, by Alan Titchmarsh
  • Queen Victoria in Her Letters and Journals
  • Girls Growing Up in Late Victorian and Edwardian England, by Carol Dyhouse
  • The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter, by Lucinda Hawksley
  • Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household, by Kate Hubbard (Still trying to obtain a copy of this.)
  • Queen Victoria: A Life in Contradictions, by Matthew Dennison
  • At Her Majesty’s Request: An African Princess in Victorian England, by Walter Dean Myers
  • *Inventing the Victorians, by Matthew Sweet
  • *What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist — the Facts of Daily Life in 19th Century England, by Daniel Pool
  • And countless websites and online resources

I’ve been busy since November 2020 tightening the story (and, fingers crossed, finding the embarrassing anachronisms and fixing the silly typos ) before I send the manuscript to my mentor. I look forward to extracting maximum benefit from working with Wendy Dunn. I certainly have been blessed in the mentor department over the years. I’ve benefitted in the past from the expert advice of the Catherine Bateson on my Temple of Lost Time project and Dee White on Saving Arcadia.

Watch this space! Later in 2021, I will report back about working with Wendy and how The Remarkables changes in the mentoring process.

A huge thankyou to the team at the Historical Novel Society Australasia for making this opportunity possible.

And Finally, A Plug

Wendy Dunn’s new book All Manner of Things comes out on 15 January 2021. Click on the link to preorder.

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08P2TNXG3?pf_rd_r=ZQFP6TX71WJ9PFHV1DDG&pf_rd_p=6fc81c8c-2a38-41c6-a68a-f78c79e7253f

Image credits:

11 Thoughts

  1. Congratulations Ali. So pleased for you I’ve read many of your previous manuscripts which I thoroughly enjoyed. So The Remarkables promises to be a remarkable one.

    Liked by 1 person

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