On Writing Things in Jars by Jess Kidd
I’ve long wanted to write a novel set in Victorian times and was particularly drawn to the narratives of the Irish settlers in London. They’d done what members of my family had done – only centuries ago. Henry Mayhew’s interviews in ‘London Labour and the London Poor’, compiled during the time of the Great Exhibition, brought to my attention a chorus of everyday voices from all different backgrounds. These voices have haunted me down the years. Had I lived in those times would I have been knocking around with Mayhew’s interviewees or drinking claret and consulting my pocket watch? Most likely I’d be a ribbon seller, a costermonger, scraping an existence in any number of ways in the highly stratified Victorian society. Unlike a character in a Dickens novel I’d be unlikely to experience a change of fortune. I would be living in a time of extremes, when poverty and wealth, innovation and stifling traditions went cheek by jowl. As I dug deeper, the stories of everyday working people continued to fascinate. But so, too, did the lives of anatomists, surgeons and early forensic scientists, the fanatical collectors of nature’s strangest artifacts, the owners of the great circuses. There was so much to explore, so many stories to potentially tell. I knew I had to write a protagonist who would allow ‘access all areas’ — even the very murkiest areas. In fact, being a mystery writer with a love of twisted plots and hidden secrets, those were the areas I was most interested in.
Enter Bridie Devine. Bridie has been many things; a Dublin orphan finding a new life in London, a resurrection man’s assistant (raiding graveyards for corpses for the medical men to dissect), an anatomist’s right-hand girl and a toxicologist’s ward. Dragged up in roughest taverns then educated to pass as upper class, Bridie is intrepid and resourceful. She’ll even don a disguise to infiltrate those places barred to her. She can hold her own in the slums of the Rookery or in the drawing room of a country house. Her skills and knowledge equip Bridie to be a brilliant doctor. Her gender will not permit this in the year 1863. So Bridie applies her sharp mind and knowledge of the human body (and human nature) to Scotland Yard’s unsolved cases or to those that seek her help with cases that never reach the police. Bridie is an independent woman, she has an occupation, which provokes gossip and raises the occasional obstacle.
Into this mix I added a dash of Irish lore, the half-forgotten story of a merrow. Nothing is quite as it seems in Bridie Devine’s world. Her latest case is a remarkable puzzle. Christabel Berwick, the daughter of Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick, has been kidnapped. But Christabel is no ordinary child. She is not supposed to exist . . .
Bridie follows the stolen girl’s trail into the world of fanatical anatomists, crooked surgeons and mercenary showmen. Everyone is a collector in this age of discovery and there are still uncommon wonders to be found. Anomalies are in fashion, curiosities are the thing and oddities are the last word. Fortunes, and lives, are won and lost in the name of science and entertainment. The public love a spectacle and Christabel may well prove the most remarkable spectacle London has ever seen. She is the stuff of legend: a conjurer of weather, bringer of chaos and violent yearnings and abominable endings. She is a living myth, a collectable girl for grown men with dark dreams. Bridie’s investigation raises formidable enemies, old and new. But Bridie is not alone she has friends and allies – Cora, her loyal housemaid, the dapper Detective Rose and Ruby Doyle (deceased) prizewinning boxer.
The challenge and joy of writing this book was in following Bridie into uncharted territory. Research unearthed wonderful period details but I didn’t want to write a historical past, I wanted to write the characters living in their present. So the historical element was less a museum piece and more life unravelling before our eyes. As I wrote I felt like I was following my characters around, sometimes down some strange rabbit holes. I found everything was more or less new to me so I was looking at everything with fresh eyes (and often a fair bit of wonder). To plot a journey meant working out the speed of a carriage, the state of the roads, the likely route. It wasn’t enough to describe what London looked like. I wanted to find out what it felt like and how the characters negotiated their way through it. How did the clothes they wore restrict them, or grant them freedom? How would they address each other? How would they converse with no one listening? Every action and interaction seemed couched in expectations of gender, class and status. What exactly was acceptable behaviour in any given context, and, sometimes more importantly, how was it possible to flout it?
In writing Things in Jars I drew inspiration from two novels in particular, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind and The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. Although they are set in different time periods (and in the case of Perfume a different country) they both wonderfully, opulently, assault the senses. They drop me headlong into their worlds – the sights, smells, people, their bodies and actions and lives. I wanted to immerse my readers in my imaginary world. And in doing so, go some way to dispel the myth of the Victorians as staid and stuffy. Matthew Sweet’s wonderful study, Inventing the Victorians, was influential here. The Victorians were thrill seeking, danger-loving, free thinkers. Behind the respectable façade there was an awful a lot going on.
(c) Jess Kidd
Jess was brought up in London as part of a large family from Mayo. Her debut novel, Himself, was published by Canongate and Atria in 2016/2017. The Hoarder, also titled Mr. Flood’s Last Resort (U.S. and Canada), is her second novel.
Jess completed her first degree in Literature with The Open University, has taught creative writing and gained an MA and PhD in Creative Writing Studies and has worked as a support worker.
She is currently editing her third novel, a mystery tale set in Victorian London and her first children’s book. She is also developing her own original TV projects with leading U.K. and international TV producers.
For more visit jesskidd.com
About Things in Jars:
London, 1863. Bridie Devine, the finest female detective of her age, is taking on her toughest case yet. Reeling from her last job and with her reputation in tatters, a remarkable puzzle has come her way. Christabel Berwick has been kidnapped. But Christabel is no ordinary child. She is not supposed to exist.
As Bridie fights to recover the stolen child she enters a world of fanatical anatomists, crooked surgeons and mercenary showmen. Anomalies are in fashion, curiosities are the thing, and fortunes are won and lost in the name of entertainment. The public love a spectacle and Christabel may well prove the most remarkable spectacle London has ever seen.
Things in Jars is an enchanting Victorian detective novel that explores what it is to be human in inhumane times.
Order your copy online here.