April 28, 2020

Scarlett Peckham

Long live the alpha heroine
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How women’s rights activist Mary Wollstonecraft inspired Scarlett Peckham’s “alpha heroine.”

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After releasing three critically acclaimed, independently published romances, Scarlett Peckham is making her Avon debut with The Rakess, a ferociously feminist historical romance inspired in part by the Enlightenment-era women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft. Peckham’s romance follows scandalous reformer Seraphina Arden as she confronts her painful past while writing her memoirs and falling in love with Adam Anderson, an upstanding architect and single father.

We asked Peckham about the radical life and heartbreaking death of Mary Wollstonecraft, why she considers her female characters to be “alpha heroines” and the secret to writing fantastic angst.

You’ve said that you write romances starring alpha heroines. How would you define that term?
As a historical romance novelist, I love writing about women who find ways to claim a great deal of agency for themselves and feel empowered despite living in a period in which they were not afforded the same rights women have now. To me, “alpha heroine” is a cri de coeur for readers who, like me, grew up reading alpha heroes and were like, “But what about all the strong, powerful ladies?” In other words, it’s more of a state of mind than a character trope—an acerbic bluestocking spinster can be just as alpha as a naïve aristocratic maiden, who can be just as alpha as a whipping house governess.

This book is dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft and is clearly inspired by her and the other reformers/revolutionaries of the Georgian period. When did you first encounter Wollstonecraft, and what does she mean to you?
I first read A Vindication on the Rights of Women in a humanities class my freshman year of college. This is embarrassing to admit, but at the time, I thought it was shockingly misogynist. I had expected to read a “feminist” treatise—“feminist” as I understood the word as an 18-year-old in the early aughts. But part of Wollstonecraft’s argument is that women would not be so vain, petty and foolish (I’m paraphrasing) if they were given an education. I was like, “Um, wow. Harsh, Mary.”

When I decided to write a book about a feminist reformer, I went back and reread Vindication and belatedly realized the somewhat obvious fact that the book is not written to persuade women; it’s written to persuade men. There is such a sly brilliance to its rhetorical approach. “Gents, you may not want to educate your silly ladies for their own sake, but they will be less annoying wives and much better mothers to your sons if you give them an education. Do it for the boys!”

I was so amused; it struck me as so transgressive and tricky. This is absolutely something one of my characters would do—use the tools at her disposal to persuade a man into doing what she wants out of his own self-interest. It made me fascinated to know more about what Wollstonecraft was like as a person, rather than just as a writer.

“And so, of course, having fallen head-over-heels in love with her, I was heartbroken over the circumstances of her death.”

I picked up Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon, which is a dual biography of Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, and I was blown away by how radical and modern she was in all aspects of her life. Politically, she was pro-abolition, anti-monarchist, anti-marriage, pro-female education—she was literally negotiating an equitable distribution of domestic labor with her male partner in the 1790s because she was trying to write a novel while looking after a baby. And she had this absolutely juicy personal life with grand adventures (she went to Paris to report on the French Revolution and to Scandinavia with her baby to search for a ship of lost treasure for her lover). She had tumultuous love affairs. She suffered depressions and attempted suicide. She was a complicated person with a fierce intellect, a probing sense of personal ethics, grand passions, surprising tenderness. A heroine by any estimation.

And so, of course, having fallen head-over-heels in love with her, I was heartbroken over the circumstances of her death. Her life had just finally reached a place of fulfillment and contentment after years of struggle—she was polishing a feminist gothic novel, she was pregnant with her second child and able to spend quality time with her older daughter, she was in a fiercely equal partnership with a man who was her intellectual peer and also madly in love with her—and she died from complications of childbirth. And then her husband, William Godwin, wrote a memoir about her, which revealed that she had had a child out of wedlock, and she posthumously lost all credibility. She was dismissed as a slut, an “unsex’d woman” who personified the risk of allowing the patriarchy to release any of its grip on power.

It killed me that this woman who was so brave and brilliant and transgressive and determined got this abrupt end after leading such a singular life, just when she seemed about to truly achieve abundant joy. And her fate struck me as being very . . . female. By which I mean a man in Mary’s position would likely have lived to write more books and do even more persuasive work toward reform and raise his children. At the very least, he would not have died of childbed fever. And his reputation would not have been destroyed over the revelation of an affair—because men do not typically get rebranded as whores when their ideas are found frightening.

So I wanted to take all these aspects of Wollstonecraft’s life that remind me so much of an idealized romance heroine—her defiance, her passion, her tenderness, her vulnerability, her self-determination—and give her the romance novel-style happy ending she did not get to enjoy in real life.

What was the political atmosphere in England in this period, and how did that influence the book?
The last few decades of the 18th century were such an interesting time, because you see all the ideals from the Enlightenment cresting—citizens rejecting hierarchical forms of government, turning away from the church and toward science, demanding more justice, demanding an end to slavery. You have the American Revolution and the French Revolution throwing off oppressive monarchies and moving toward democratic ideals.

And in England, the response to this was a division in society not unlike the schism we see in American politics today. Conservatives were terrified that revolution would come to England and topple the foundations of society. Progressives were energized by the ideals and changes that were happening abroad. Powerful factions began to mobilize to uphold their power and privilege, while activists were agitating to make reforms. And it resulted in a culture war. Conservatives vilified progressives in the papers, branded them Jacobins, advocated for anti-sedition laws to shut them up and keep them from organizing and publishing.

In The Rakess, because the heroine, Seraphina, is considered to be in league with the Jacobins, you see her become a target. Not just for her “rakish” lifestyle, but for her politically dangerous ideas. The tension in the love story is around the stakes of this—you cannot enter a relationship with a woman like Seraphina Arden without taking on the stakes of her life—which will put you at odds with the ruling class and threaten your family’s security. And you cannot be a woman like Seraphina Arden without feeling the repercussions of this constant threat of danger, the stress and dread that underlie the fight. Which is why, when we meet Seraphina, she is in such a dark place.

Her historical influences are clear, but did any contemporary figures inspire Seraphina? And did you have any specific historical or contemporary inspirations for Thaïs, Cornelia or Lady Bell?
I started the book just after Trump was elected and revised it amidst the #MeToo movement, and I think my anger about how women are still fighting the same fights of the 18th century is . . . not a subtle undercurrent in this book. The concept of “nevertheless, she persisted” runs through Seraphina’s behavior—there is definitely a debt to Elizabeth Warren’s calm in the face of men berating and seeking to undermine her. There is also a hefty debt to women who speak out about gendered injustices and double standards and receive no end of harassment and scrutiny because of it. The characters are not inspired by anyone in particular, but I was inspired by people who have been on the front lines pushing forward feminist thinking, including Chanel Miller, Christine Blasey Ford, Rose McGowan and so many others. I wanted to capture both the bravery and heroism of being on the front lines, and the sacrifice.

What was the most difficult aspect of this book to get right? What came to you the easiest?
Seraphina initially seemed to have arrived fully formed in my head—her voice, her writing style, her mannerisms and the way she looked were all very clear from me from the first chapter. But that was a trick, because Seraphina is very, very tricky. It was much, much harder to actually crack into her interiority and excavate what lies inside this outwardly dazzling but brittle person. She resists being known to protect herself, and that defensiveness extends to the person who invented her!

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Rakess.

You do such a fabulous job at writing great angst that moves the story along, rather than wallowing without purpose or plot development. How do you plan the emotional journey of your characters?
Thank you! I suppose the basic puzzle that animates any romance novel is, “They must be together, but they cannot not be together.” So when I start a draft, I’m doing a lot of very cynical calculus to see what will drive them together, physically, sexually and emotionally . . . and what will make it absolutely inconceivable that their relationship will work. I’m constantly sowing the seeds of compatibility and conflict, so that there’s always a way to yank the heart strings and then twist the knife.

What led you to deviate from the typical rake formula (near constant brandy and wine-swilling without any adverse effects), and show the consequences and the emotional reality of Seraphina’s copious drinking?
One thing I love to do as a romance writer is take a beloved genre trope—say, a marriage of convenience to someone you fear, or having to fake a relationship with someone you are in love with—and roll around in the psychological muck of what that might really feel like as a lived experience. Often tropes that are so delicious as the premise of a romance would be equally compelling as the jumping off point to a horror thriller. Fairy tales, after all, ride the line between fantasy and nightmare. The overlap, to me, is what makes romance so utterly fun to read and write.

So for me, the whole point of writing a hard-drinking, promiscuous, emotionally unavailable rake is to probe the reasons why the character would have that tendency toward detachment and numbness, and to examine the toll it would take on their emotions and health.

The arc of the rake trope is that the rake is redeemed by love, but obviously love can’t save you from the effects of trauma or from a drinking problem. That requires real emotional work. And so Seraphina’s journey is about acknowledging and allowing herself to really feel what she has endured in her life, and accepting that it is incredibly painful, rather than dismissing it in rakish trappings and the comforting haze of booze.

One of the key moments of a romance novel is the black moment, where it seems as if there’s no hope for the main couple to end up together. Something that fascinated me about The Rakess is that you don’t have just one event that could qualify as the black moment. Was this a conscious decision on your part? How do you see these moments of crisis in The Rakess, and how did you structure them? Is one of them the true black moment for you, or do they all serve that function or parts of it?
I think of a black moment as a mechanism by which Character A chooses to protect an old fear rather than open up to the love of Character B, and in doing so inadvertently activates the deepest wound of Character B, creating a chasm between the lovers that can only be fixed by Character A recognizing the cowardice of the choice, and then demonstrably changing.

So by this calculus, The Rakess has two major black moments. For Adam, it’s the night Seraphina chooses to drink alone instead of attending Golowan. Her treatment of him that night reminds him of his father’s abusive behavior when he was a child, and he knows he must end his relationship with her. The ugliness of that night propels her to recognize that she is destroying her own happiness, and hurting people she cares about.

For Sera, the crisis is much later, when Adam ends their relationship to protect his family name and financial prospects, repeating the abandonment she suffered at the hands of a man she loved in her youth. When he realizes how his choice mirrors that of the man who sacrificed Sera’s future for his own well-being, Adam radically reexamines the kind of man he wants to be.

I staggered them like this because I wanted Seraphina’s problematic use of alcohol to crest in the middle of the book, so that we could see her begin to recover and heal by the time she is attempting to build a relationship with Adam. And there needed to be another romantic crisis in the third act, because it’s only after she begins to stop numbing herself and let down her guard that she can actually be hurt by the loss of Adam, and realize how much he means to her.

Cruel but necessary!

What’s next for you?
I’m currently writing my next Society of Sirens book for Avon. It will be Cornelia Ludgate’s book, tentatively titled The Jezebel. And after that I’ll be working on The Rogue I Ravished, my next Secrets of Charlotte Street book, which will be about Elena Brearley, the whipping governess who has been in the background to the other books in the series.

Get the Book

The Rakess

The Rakess

By Scarlett Peckham
ISBN 9780062935618

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