5 min

Emma Donoghue’s historical novels

Latest draws links between Victorian & modern eras

Credit: Glenn Mackay

Emma Donoghue is a woman on a mission: To wrestle history back from straight culture and queer it up. Her new novel, The Sealed Letter, is set in 1860s England. “It’s about a starchy feminist who gets caught up in a mucky divorce case,” says Donoghue, an award-winning lesbian writer who lives in London, Ontario. “The collision of these two worlds was irresistible to me.”

The book forms a loose kind of trilogy with Donoghue’s other historical novels (Life Mask and Slammerkin), all of which feature unconventional women in extraordinary circumstances. Donoghue rescues her characters from the footnotes of other people’s stories — a compulsion she attributes to being an “academic gone wrong.”

“I get hooked by real cases I come across,” she says. “If they stick in my mind long enough, I think, ‘Oh, I absolutely have to write about that.'”

Irish by birth, Donoghue moved to Ontario in 1998 and became a Canadian citizen in 2004. Her Canadian partner, Chris, drew her here, but Donoghue has since developed a love of the country. “I think this is one of the most civilized spots on the globe for same-sexers,” she says. “It’s really set me free to do other things, rather than just constantly coming out.” Those other things include childbirth — she and Chris are parents to four-year-old Finn and year-old Una. Motherhood has made her more focused, she says, but not smarter. “I was really hoping for some sudden injection of wisdom,” she quips. “I’m still waiting.”

But motherhood has provided in other ways. Donoghue’s experience of saccharine mother-and-baby groups (“You all sit around looking like you’re on Valium”) inspired her to make a 40-minute documentary about lesbian parenting. In Immaculate Conceptions: Inside a Lesbian Baby Boom, Donoghue asks her friends all the “rude” questions. “I wanted to know what people hated about parenthood and how they divided up the business of mothering,” she says. “Everyone had such different answers, which is what I like about lesbian motherhood — it’s just being invented now.” The film was screened last year at the London Lesbian Film Festival and the Austin Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.

Despite the welcome break from writerly desk duty, playing with words will always be Donoghue’s first love. Inspired by the diary of Anne Frank, she began writing poetry at age seven and by her teens it had become a get-it-down-now kind of compulsion. She decided to pursue a writing career at around the same time she realized she was gay. “They were both about paying attention to the little voice in my head,” she says, “instead of the cultural voices telling you to get a good job in the civil service and marry a man.”

At 21 she left Dubin for a PhD at Cambridge University on 18th-century English fiction. That same year she found a literary agent. Her first novel — which she’d been writing and rewriting since the age of 19 — was published four years later. The book, Stir Fry, is a coming-of-age story about an Irish girl who’s confused about her sexuality. Almost immediately Donoghue was branded with the “lesbian writer” tag. Was it a blessing or a hindrance? “It hasn’t held me back,” she says. “I have no objection to someone calling me a lesbian writer if they mean I’m a lesbian who writes. But that doesn’t determine what I write about.”

Despite her own orientation being crystal clear (“It was like, ‘Ping. I’m a lesbian!'”), Donoghue’s always been drawn to write about more complex sexualities, especially in her historical fiction. Crucially, though, she’s careful to avoid giving her period characters a modern lesbian sensibility. In Life Mask widowed sculptor Anne Damer is “outed” by 1790s high society, with hardly an utterance of the L-word. “I felt a responsibility to figure out how Anne would have lived in a way we now call lesbian,” says Donoghue, “although she would have shuddered at the word.”

Writing about a time before labels is refreshing, says Donoghue. “I think to be postmodern you have to go premodern. People did a lot more muddling through then; they had to put together their own emotional jigsaws without a ritualized coming out.” The Sealed Letter draws particularly interesting parallels with contemporary society. It takes place in a very modern-feeling Victorian London — not the darkly gothic city of a Dickens novel, but a bustling metropolis fuelled by new concepts like feminism and mass media. It’s a surprising reminder that those times are not as distant as we might think. “We’re still using equivalents of the telegraph, riding on the underground and living in Victorian brick houses,” says Donoghue. “We’re not living in a brand-new era; we’re at the tail-end of their modernity.”

The book’s subject matter is curiously modern too. The 1860s public was hooked on the Codrington courtroom drama in much the same way that 1990s TV audiences were glued to the Clinton impeachment. There’s even a Monica-esque stained dress in the Codrington trial documents. The latter half of the 19th century was an important time for unconventional women, not least because “spinsters” began to realize that opting out of marriage didn’t have to mean living alone. “There’s a similar shift right now,” says Donoghue. “A lot of lesbians are saying, ‘Well, the fact that I’ve chosen women doesn’t mean I don’t get children too.’ The elements of a woman’s life are still being reconfigured in ways we couldn’t have imagined.”

Donoghue still writes contemporary fiction — her latest, Landing, is an entertaining transatlantic love story — but it’s her historical novels that garner the most attention. She intends to continue writing both genres — histories have better stories, she says, but the present allows her to be funnier. Publishers and the reading public just seem more open to lesbian themes in historical fiction. “It’s as if way back then everything was emotionally complex and all the women were wearing petticoats, so it’s fine,” she says with a laugh. “But there’s a distinct resistance to modern lesbian depictions.” Perhaps because straight readers fear a lecture on gay politics? “I get a lot of reviews where clearly the reader was expecting to be badgered,” she agrees, “but surprise surprise, they find it’s a love story like any other.”

Donoghue is currently working on her first Canadian historical novel: a murder mystery set in Cobourg, Ontario, in the 1860s. It’s another case that grabbed her imagination — despite the various demands of dirty diapers and an inquisitive toddler — and just wouldn’t let go. Why does she feel such a responsibility to bring marginalized voices to life? The best explanation, she says, is one she gave to a mostly straight audience at a lecture on lesbian fiction. “I said, ‘Imagine living in a city where there are no monuments, no buildings from before 1970, no proof that you had grandparents or parents, no history at all. Wouldn’t that make you feel like you were just a passing fad, that you could just be blown away like leaves?'” she recalls, with obvious emotion. “For any community to feel substantial and to be able to change without losing themselves, a history is absolutely crucial.”