Andrea/Cara here, I’m delighted to kick off the new year with a bang—and a swoosh (you'll see why in a moment)—by welcoming the incomparable Deanna Raybourn as our guest on the Wenches. As most of you know, Deanna has won scads of awards and accolades for her writing, including the RITA. (For Deanna’s full bio, you can click here.) Her books feature a scintillating combination of mystery and romance, rich with intriguing characters and witty dialogue. Her settings take readers around the world—the Lady Julia series (fluttery fan-girl sigh) journeys through Victorian England, Europe and India, while A Spear of Summer Grass takes readers to Africa in the 1920s. With her new Veronica Speedwell series, (more fluttery fan girl sighs) Deanna returns to Victorian times—and the marvelously eccentric adventuring that only she can create. The second book in the series, A Perilous Undertaking, releases tomorrow (if you haven't met Veronica yet, you are in for a treat!) , and—well, I’ll now turn the pen over to Deanna and let her tell you more about it!
Deanna here, Oh, how I love a bit of banter between an intrepid heroine and a stubborn hero! In the case of my sleuthing pair, Veronica Speedwell and the Honourable Revelstoke Templeton-Vane, they are usually at it hammer and tongs—even on page one. In the opening of their second mystery together, A PERILOUS UNDERTAKING, Stoker is attempting to teach Veronica a few useful self-defense skills. Little does he realize, Veronica is even more adept and experienced than he is…
London, September 1887
“For the love of all that is holy, Veronica, the object is to maim or kill, not tickle,” Stoker informed me, clipping the words sharply as he handed me a knife. “Do it again.”
I suppressed a sigh and took the knife, grasping it lightly as I had been taught. I faced the target, staring it down as if it were an approaching lion.
“You are thinking too much.” Stoker folded his arms over the breadth of his chest and looked down his nose at me. “The entire purpose of this exercise is to train you to react, not to think. When your life is in danger, your body must know what to do, because there is no time for your mind to engage.”
I turned to face him, not lowering the blade. “Might I remind you that I have, upon many and various occasions, been in mortal danger and I am still here.”
“Anyone can get lucky,” he said coldly. “And I suspect your continued survival owes itself to a combination of good fortune and sheer bloody-mindedness. You are too stubborn to die.”
“You are a fine one to talk!” I retorted. “It is not as if that scar upon your face were a love bite from a kitten.”
His lips tightened. I found it entertaining that such a hardened man of the world could have gained so much experience as scientist, explorer, natural historian, naval surgeon, and taxidermist and still let himself be nettled by a woman half his size. The thin, silvered scar that trailed from brow to jaw on one side of his face was not at all disfiguring. Quite the opposite, in fact. But it was a constant reminder of the failed Amazonian expedition that had destroyed his career and his marriage and nearly ended his life. It was not entirely sporting of me to mention it, but we had begun to pluck one another’s nerves in recent days, and it had been his idea to train me in the combative arts as a way to exorcise our bad tempers. It almost worked, not least because I pretended to be entirely inexperienced in the matter. Men, I had often observed, were never happier than when they believed they were imparting wisdom.
Stoker is clearly not the typical Victorian male, and Veronica is no timid shrinking violet. And yet they are both based on composites of my favorite research topic—Victorian explorers! Veronica owes her inspiration to Margaret Fountaine, a lepidopterist who traveled the globe hunting butterflies and men with equal vigor, while Stoker shares much with Charles Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley as well as Carl Akeley, natural historians who set off to see the world.
Unlike modern scientists who often work in minutely specialized fields, 19th-century natural historians were jacks- and jill-of-all-trades. They mapped out their adventures, traveling to remote and dangerous parts of the world that had never been fully explored. They collected specimens and experiences, sleeping rough and accepting hardships cheerfully. Discarding the expectations of polite society, the ladies packed up their parasols and petticoats, determined to equal—and in many cases surpass—the stamina and courage of the men. They ran the gamut from travelers who brought dozens of trunks and insisted on putting out the best china to those who carried a single carpetbag and got by on their wits and healthy doses of luck and castor oil.
Whether butterfly hunters or archaeologists, botanists or cartographers, they were indefatigable in their quest for knowledge, but it was their commitment to a different sort of life that truly sets them apart from other Victorians. They rejected the conventional notions of hearth and home in favor of the dirt and dangers of travel at a time when it could take months to circumnavigate the globe and there were no guarantees of a safe return. Some were motivated by the lure of the unknown, some by the promise of better health in a different climate, some by the desperate need to flee the burden of expectation. Whatever their reasons for going, they went—and in going, they are our guides to the natural world in the 19th-century. Through journals, letters, memoirs, lectures, and articles, they shared their experiences, and reading their accounts is like walking hand in hand with them through the most arduous and inspiring of their travels. It’s not surprising then that when it came time for me to create a new heroine, I turned to some of the most exciting, creative, and daring women in history—the explorers.
(To read the first four chapters of A PERILOUS UNDERTAKING, click here.)
If you had the chance to travel with any Victorian explorer, what part of the world would you like to see? And would you be content with just a carpetbag and a jar of cold cream? Or would you pack a canvas bathtub and the silver tea set? Deanna has graciously offered to send a signed copy of A Perilous Undertaking to one lucky winner, chosen at random from those who leave a comment!