Have you had a look at my Chichester Observer article about local author V.H. Leslie’s debut novel, Bodies of Water? Have a look at the full interview with the author here…
You’ve got your book coming out in May – could you tell us a bit about it? What’s it about, and how did it come into being?
Where to begin! That’s a big question. I’ve always been interested in the nineteenth century, and I’ve always been interested in gender ideologies and the role of women. I had this idea a long time ago,when I spotted that there seems to be a lot of connections between water and women. Lots of the artwork of the Pre-Raphaelites and later, so the mid to late nineteenth century, feature women in the water. You get the temptresses and the mythical women, but you also get clinical images of women who have been pulled from the water after attempting suicide. There’s almost a craze of pictures of dead women during this time, pictures of women who are passive. So I was thinking about these ideas that had been deposited in the Thames, if you know what I mean, and so I went to the Wellcome Library to research this further. I had all these different fragments, and I wanted to see if I could merge them together. I was researching the fallen woman and the abundance of women who committed suicide in the Thames, and alongside that, I was looking at the water cure. So I had lots of different watery origins, and I amalgamated them, and that’s what’s become the novel! It’s set in a Victorian water cure centre, and it follows a woman who is administering to a fallen woman, working for a rescue society, helping her to recoop. There’s also a modern setting – this feminine legacy which resides in the water from the past, without giving too much away! The Wellcome Library was amazing, just to look into practices and associated women’s health. My research took me down into venereal disease and prostitution, the legal procedures, the ‘steel rape’ policy – the police were allowed to arrest and examine any women that they suspected of prostitution – that was very interesting. It’s about an attack on women’s bodies and the connection with the water. There was an exhibition on at the Foundling Museum, and that was really interesting as it focused on the foundling mothers rather than the foundling children. If you wanted to return to respectable society, you had to almost get rid of your badge of shame, which was your child. To give your child over to the Foundling hospital, you had to go through this lengthy procedure, filling forms, and also selling an accepted story about your fall. I looked at a lot of the petitions that they wrote to get their children accepted into the Foundling hospital, and they were really interesting. So many of them were about what we would define today as rape, although they avoid using that word. Also men letting women down, promising marriage and then not going through with it, drugs were used and things like that – really hard reading. The only way to climb back into respectable society was to give your child over – it must have been so hard for these women to make these sorts of choices. It was curated by Linda Nead, who wrote Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian Britain.
[Image: Hydropathy Picture credit: Wellcome Library, London/Wellcome Images]
Could you tell us about the research you did for the book?
Some research was specifically for the book, but some of it I had come across while writing my dissertation. My research began to take a medical or social theory angle which I hadn’t anticipated, and now my PhD is based in a similar theme. I realised that there was almost a lack of a book that explored various mythical water women. I was very interested in why these myths around women and water were so prominent in the nineteenth century. You get creatures like sprites, but there was a real influx of images of real women in art of this time. So, that’s what I’m attempting to find out!
How is your PhD going?
I’ve just started, and I’m working with Professor Bill Gray at the University of Chichester. It’s really wonderful, and I’m also working with Dr Hugh Dunkerley as my second supervisor. It’s going really well. You find yourself going down unanticipated routes – at the moment I’m identifying that I’m really interested in Northern mythology and stories, particularly from Ireland and the Scottish Islands, to Shetland and Orkney, and then onto places like Norway. Although, you find you’ll uncover something else and you’ll want to follow that – I was at the British Library the other day, and they were showing us the prints of fountains of Rome, and I’d never really thought about water in that sense. It’s a control over water, to project water upwards is a feat of engineering, the idea of water being untameable – these kind of debates. I’m also looking a bit at ecocriticism.
What will your PhD outcomes be?
It’s going to be half a critical analysis, and half creative writing. The critical analysis will be on nineteenth century representations of water women, and then some sort of reimagining these figure for the 20th century in my own short stories. That’s the plan!
[Image: Caricatures: ‘The cold water cure’, by Cruickshank, c. 1830 Picture credit: Wellcome Library, London/Wellcome Images]
Have you been looking at verbal tales or written examples?
Written examples – during this period, they started collecting oral tales to publish them, which is quite handy really! The nineteenth century has lots of collections of folk tales, documenting them. My background is in English Literature, so it’s difficult to get to grips with the oral dissemination of the tales – that’s something to get my head around. I’m very based in the written works. I was travelling around Scotland and I was in Mull, and I’d been to the storytelling centre in Edinburgh to the storytelling evening, and someone was reciting a poem that Duncan Williams had told, and I think a ballad was sung at some point. I managed to find a collection of stories by Duncan Williams, which are about selkies. Someone else has written these down, though, so you always wonder how true they are to the original. It makes you think about how stories are passed on.
Was there a particular reason you wanted to study in Chichester?
There was a connection here with what I wanted to study as it is home to the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairytale and Fantasy. I’ve been coming here to see the open lectures for the previous couple of years, it’s wonderful. The centre also works with people like Jacqueline Simpson whose interests in folklore are much more rooted in this area. That’s really interesting too. It’s also an established centre for creative writing. Being an avid follower of creative writing success stories, I was familiar with lots of people who were studyinhg here and lectured here, so it’s a dream come true to study here! It’s also usefully close to my house! Chichester’s also a great place to be interdisciplinary. I’m also doing a music collaboration, as there were a lot of water women celebrated in music at the time, in folk ballads and music, but also in the nineteenth century, in Dvořák, and other operas were being written about figures like Undine, The Little Mermaid. It also relates to the figure of the water women, who was celebrated for her song. So, I’m going to attempt to look at it from these different ideas.
What sort of medical history did you uncover while researching for this book?
I looked at hydropathy, which was hydrotherapy before it became hydrotherapy. Hydropathy was a real popular thing in the continent initially, and there were all these debates about whether hot water or cold water was better to use. Some centres stuck to hot water treatments, and others stuck to cold water treatments. My research was on these therapetuctic trends, and they were attended by all sorts of important figures. Charles Dickens went there, and a few other celebrities from the Victroian age would go and relax in these water spas. Typically, you would be woken up quite early in the morning, and you would be given a bland breakfast, you would be drinking lots of water, you would then be cocooned up in sheets, and throughout the day you’d have a variety of baths. There was a lot of science behind each of these treatments that you’d go through – the level of water, the doctor would be assessing if you were sweating something out – it was quite complex! They also had compresses that they would put around your body, including one called the Neptune’s Girdle which would go around your stomach. They’d go for lots of walks, no wine or alcohol, hardly any red meat or anything that was too indulgent. The line of thought is that because hygiene was so awful, actually these baths were actually a really good thing!
[Image: A man seated in a cubicle is being sprayed with water Picture credit: Wellcome Library, London/Wellcome Images]
When and where will your book be available?
The University might be having a launch in Septmeber, and the book’s going to be translated into French for 2017. Salt is a really good publisher, and they’re good at promoting books that are character led and nuanced, the kind of books I like to read. It really feels like the right place for my work. It will be available in all good bookshops later this year.
Tell us about life on the Portsmouth writing scene!
Recently, there’s been renewed interest in the Portsmouth writing scene. Every month there’s an event that goes on – a writer or a speaker, usually at Cafe Parisian. It really feels like Portsmouth’s an exciting place to be in terms of writing. I’ve read at the Day of the Dead at the Square Tower – that’s really great, because you get to see what’s going on with other people’s work. Recently I did a Valentine’s Day event called The Valentine’s Day Massacre, it was really well attended. It was held at the Wave Maiden pub, which is a really good venue for it. There’s a mixture of performers – singers, poets, story writers – and it was part of Portsmouth Bookfest. I’ve been involved as a local writer. My short story collection was launched at the Blackwell’s, it’s called Skein and Bone, so that was great – we actually sold out! It was very exciting. Everyone’s very supportive as we’re a small community of writers. Will Sutton, a local writer who runs a lot of the events and who writes about Victorian crime, runs a lot of these events. He’s a good one to watch.
Find out more at Victoria’s blog, which can be found at vhleslie.wordpress.com.