Written by M J Tjia
This year my third Heloise Chancey novel, The Death of Me, will be released in October. With each book, I’ve found I am getting to know and care about the characters more and more—both Heloise and Amah Li Leen, but also the characters who surround them in each novel. I enjoy the space a series gives me as a writer to explore their lives. I always intended for these books to be part of a series, and I have purposely drip-fed Heloise’s backstory to the reader, through both her memories and through Amah’s recollections. Mostly, I developed her backstory from what I have read of actual 19th century courtesans, and their experiences. In The Death of Me, Amah finds herself back in Liverpool, and we learn a lot more of Heloise’s childhood. In future books we will find out more about how she came to be a sex-worker and how she fought her way to her relatively elevated position.
I have found that one of the many attractions of writing neo-Victorian crime fiction lies in its capacity to explore the often missing dimensions of 19th century historical works—namely working-class women and the culturally diverse. When I was researching the Victorian female detective, I came across both fictional and documented literature regarding women of the time working as professional detectives. I think perhaps their main role was to spy; disguised as maids, nannies, seamstresses and so forth. In the case of my Heloise Chancey crime novels, I try to ‘re-imagine’ or ‘re-tell’ the lives of Eurasian women in London in the 1860s. As a successful courtesan, Heloise has attained a level of wealth and independence other working-class women could only dream of, but I have tried to be thoughtful as to how Heloise can also represent social and sexual restrictions placed upon young women, then and now.
Of course, when writing historical fiction, writers need to be careful that their work is not too prescient. However, I would argue that, in some cases – such as Heloise’s tendency towards feminist thoughts and the portrayal of Asian Londoners – what might appear to be prescient might actually hold some accuracy. This is where research becomes a crucial part of writing historical fiction. By writing these excluded characters back into the story of Victorian London, I hope not just to give them voices and acknowledge the existence and experience of people like them, but also I want to shift negative representations that have grown out of mainstream narratives, such as the ‘sinister Oriental’. Fiction plays a large part in creating these negative perceptions and representations, and it can play an equally large part in shifting and remaking them.