IN OTHER WORDS
BY ELIZABETH ROSS
Jun 13, 2013
I know how reluctant teens can be to immerse themselves in history because I was one of them (perhaps surprising to admit for an author of historical fiction!). In the Scottish education system, at around 13 years old you’re given the choice of studying either geography or history. I chose geography. Why? Because history seemed irrelevant and stuffy—date-laden text illustrated with grainy photographs. The curriculum itself felt dusty and uninspired: coal mining and the industrial revolution, the First World War and so on. It wasn’t for me…or so I thought.
Even though I shied away from history lessons in school, I did love the idea of time travel when I was young. As a child my parents took our family to Scottish castles and country houses in the way that a North American kid might visit national parks. These castles have rooms preserved as they would have been used at the time, containing furniture, fabrics, clothes and objects from everyday life. Experiencing these details, I wondered how a girl my age might live as a Laird’s daughter, playing piano in the music room or as a scullery maid toiling in the kitchens. That was when history was fascinating for me— when my senses and my imagination were engaged.
My historical novel, BELLE EPOQUE, is set in Paris the year the Eiffel tower was under construction (1888-89). I was inspired to write the book when I read a short story by Emile Zola. “Les Repoussoirs
” (“Rentafoil” in English) is about an agency of unattractive women rented out as accessories to rich socialites to make them appear more attractive by comparison. It wasn’t my intention to write a novel set in turn of the century Paris. Rather, it was my desire to know what it felt like to be an ugly girl for hire that led me to write the story. I had a visceral reaction to the Zola tale, and couldn’t stop imagining what it would feel like to be in the shoes of one such beauty foil—it was the “what if” moment that led me to write a novel.
The connection I made with the historical context of the Eiffel tower came later. I knew I wanted to set the book during la belle époque
. Aside from the fitting irony of the name—the age of beauty—it was a time of peace, prosperity, and a blossoming in art, music, and technology. But as I researched more about the period I was surprised to learn just how unpopular Eiffel’s (now infamous) tower was at the time. Considered a monstrosity, an eyesore, I realized it was the perfect metaphor for my main character, Maude. Unlike the rest of Paris, she is impressed by Eiffel’s iron construction, and finds some comfort in its unique appearance. “Maybe something unrefined can also be beautiful,” she reflects.
“Only connect,” said E.M. Forster in his novel HOWARD’S END. That’s been my mantra towards fiction writing in general, but I think it resonates in particular for historical fiction. Thinking back on my process for creating BELLE EPOQUE, I found my character before I discovered the world events framing her story. And here lies the key to making history come alive—the human connection. As a writer, if my interest is piqued when I discover the person (real or fictitious) behind historical events, this is the same for young readers.
To write a historical novel, the writer’s task is to make history breathe, to make it feel tangible—it’s a feat of world building. In researching BELLE EPOQUE, I brought history to life in different ways—through art, music, novels, poetry, photography, and even food. I researched facts about 1889 French society, of course, but my Paris of 1889 is also the Paris of my imagination. And I was inspired by everything from period film scores to Toulouse Lautrec’s poster art.
I made many discoveries during the process of writing a novel set at the turn of the century, but what fascinated me most in comparing life then and now, weren’t the stark differences in technology, class divides, or gender inequalities—but the similarities to our present world. The experience my main character, Maude, goes through is so resonant for teens today—particularly girls. Who manages to escape adolescence without feeling ostracized at some point?
Paris was a society obsessed with beauty, with an explosion of advertising and self-improvement where women were encouraged to attain some impossible physical ideal. What delighted me in writing the novel was when I could draw a parallel between our world and that of belle époque
Paris. What is history, then, if not a lens through which to see ourselves? Like science fiction, it is our world yet different. We engage with history when we recognize ourselves.
I write what I’m curious about. And I think teens will devour historical fiction (and history lessons) if their curiosity is peaked and their imaginations are engaged—and most of all, if they can see themselves reflected in the past.
Elizabeth Ross studied French and film studies at university in Scotland. She lives in Los Angeles, California, where, when she isn’t writing, she edits feature films. Her debut novel, BELLE EPOQUE (Delacorte, 2013) was published earlier this week. You can visit her at www.elizabethrossbooks.com and follow her on Twitter @RossElizabeth.
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