Mixing it up with another delightful installment of #womenshistoryreads that includes both fiction and non-fiction from the same author! You may know Kris Waldherr from her recent book Bad Princess: True Tales from Behind the Tiara, but like so many of us, she writes and reads both fiction and non-fiction as the mood strikes. You'll love her answers below; I sure did.
Greer: What’s the last book that blew you away?
Kris: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. I’m reduced to sputtering with admiration whenever I try to describe why I loved this novel. Between Perry’s masterful use of point of view (how’d she do that?!?), the deeply humane and observed characters (Cora Seaborne for the win!), their intricate relationships, and the immersive setting—wow, just wow. Also, as a book designer, The Essex Serpent has one of the most beautiful covers I’ve ever seen.
Greer: I really enjoyed that one too (and yes, the cover is everything.) Now, play matchmaker: what unsung woman from history would you most like to read a book about, and who should write it?
Kris: I’d hardly call her unsung, but I’d love to read a novel about Joan of Arc by Hillary Mantel. Could you imagine Mantel describing the court machinations and sexual politics twining around poor Joan’s neck? Now that’s a book I wish existed!
Greer: Agreed! What’s your next book about and when will we see it?
Kris: My debut novel The Lost History of Dreams comes out from Touchstone Books in Spring 2019. It’s a Victorian era reworking of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice about a post-mortem photographer whose latest assignment forces him to confront his past. Think Wuthering Heights meets The Thirteenth Tale. Though I’ve been published many times before, there’s something special about being a first-time novelist—I’m really excited to see The Lost History of Dreams launched into the world!
Greer: Sounds utterly fabulous!
Kris: My question for you: I was excited to learn Woman Ninety-Nine is set in a nineteenth century asylum. What did you learn while researching asylums that surprised or shocked you the most?
Greer: I kind of suspected this, but it was still jarring to see it borne out by the research: it was very, very easy to commit a woman for insanity against her will in the mid-to-late 1800s. A husband or father could easily and quickly condemn a woman to spend months or even years in an asylum as long as he could get a doctor to sign off on the order, which was not much of a barrier, especially for a man with money. And the reasons women could be committed were very much in line with what we would consider today to be "normal" swings of mood (like postpartum depression) or even positive attributes: wanting an education, refusing to marry someone her family had chosen for her, things like that. When my main character finds herself in an asylum against her will, she also finds that she's more at home among her fellow inmates than she is in the broader society, which tells you something. Asylums weren't always terrible places, even though it was terrible that women could be put there for almost any reason or no reason at all. I really enjoyed exploring that dichotomy -- as I hope my readers will too.