Assumptions about what women readers read, and what women writers write is a central vein of Virginia Pye’s “The Literary Undoing of Victoria Swann.” In the novel, set in Gilded Age Boston, Pye’s protagonist, Victoria Meeks, writes women’s dime novels, and pulpy popular romance for “lady readers,” under the pen name Mrs. Swann. And she’s dissatisfied.
“I place my heroines on tropical shores, in Russian palaces, or deep in the jeweled bowels of Nefertiti’s tomb. The sorts of places where my readers have never been, and … neither have I,” Meeks tells one editor.
She tells another: “[T]hose settings aren’t real. I want to write about women who are made of flesh and bones, with the kinds of problems that my readers might have experienced themselves …”
“Ladies don’t want that,” her older male editor tells her.
So she finds an ally in a younger editor, takes a stand, and publishes a novel, under her own name, centered on a character she develops as a real Boston woman.
Pye, who grew up in Belmont, said she thinks of the novel as a “love letter to books” and Boston. I called Pye at her Cambridge home ahead of her Nov. 15 virtual talk and Q&A via Ashland, Wayland, and Tewksbury public libraries.
Q. You’ve said this book was sparked by your returning to Cambridge and being “struck by the way the city’s bookishness contrasts with other places” you’ve lived.
A. Exactly. I was figuring what to write about and kept noticing how people here read so much: on the subway, walking down the street. I saw somebody reading at the stoplight, book up on the steering wheel.
I noticed Boston has a lot of monuments and markers to our literary heritage — particularly to the gentlemen of letters who’ve lived here. I started to feel the shadow of it. I wondered what it would’ve been like to be a woman writer in that earlier time, trying to be heard, be read. What if you didn’t write that high literary kind of writing? What if you wrote, what they would have called back then, frivolous writing for other women?
Then I went to the Schlesinger Library [at the Radcliffe Institute] and came upon “Gail Hamilton,” the pen name for Mary Abigail Dodge who sued [her publisher] for underpaying her. She lost, but the lightbulb went off: There’s a woman who tried to push back against the male literary establishment. That’s how Victoria was born.
Q. Victoria also champions women readers.
A. In the 1860s and onward, “New Women” were the first American women to live independently. Women had always lived either with their parents, or their husbands. New Women moved to cities, found jobs. This is where dime novels come in. They were supposed to teach young women how to not get in trouble with men, basically. Titles like “A Woman in Peril” or “Marriage Gone Wrong.” One after the next are just really bad romance tropes — something’s gone wrong for the woman, a man rescues her. A man gets down on bended knee and proposes while a white dove lands on her shoulder.
But you turn the page, and there are readers’ letters: women describing “MeToo” moments. The [advice] was never: call the police. It was: you need to change your behavior.
Then you turn the page and it’s ads for women’s reproductive [issues]. Contraceptives and abortion were illegal, so ads [were discreet]. So you see the ideal women are being fed, what their real situation is, and the dire situation of their medical needs — I wanted to portray all of that fictionally.
Q. The book includes other timely themes — abortion, immigration, opioid addiction.
A. Which is crazy, because I didn’t set out to write a book that had this many current connections. But as I was researching, there were obvious abortion parallels.
Then I discovered there were two opium dens in Boston, hidden in plain sight, like the opioid crisis has been for us. That turned up the story of Chinese women brought over to work these opium dens. Chinese women were the first group outlawed in the US via The Page Act of 1875. So it wasn’t: I need to have an immigrant story. It was: Oh my God, here we are again.
Q. Your synopsis says “Swann” shows how writing and reading “can liberate us.”
A. It’s so important for people to be aware by reading newspapers and nonfiction. It’s also important that we keep our imaginations alive by reading fiction. There’s this communication that goes on between the writer, the words on the page, and the image that gets created in the reader’s mind that is deeply human and deeply important.
Lauren Daley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @laurendaley1.