New Voices: Janet Benton, Meredith Jaeger, Mark Noce & Susan Rivers

Myfanwy Cook

In this new generation of debut novelists, Janet Benton, Meredith Jaeger, Mark Noce, and Susan Rivers have created a feast of engaging and entertaining historical fiction for the New Year.

Janet Benton, author of Lilli de Jong (Doubleday, May 2017), says: “I was a professional writer and editor with too little time for writing fiction when I had my only baby. For months, nursing around the clock was my main occupation. In that foggy time, my husband showed me a review of The History of the European Family, through which I learned of the profession of wet nursing and the high percentage of ‘illegitimate’ infants. For most of these infants, the cost of prejudice was separation from their mothers and death.”

As she explains: “As a new mother with a baby at my breast, I knew that women forced by social hatred to give up their infants must have suffered greatly, and I was haunted by the sad fates of their infants, unable to survive without a mother’s milk. Lilli de Jong, which is set in Philadelphia in 1883, began when the words of an unwed mother came into my head.

“Abandoned by her lover, Lilli had to give her baby to a woman nursing multiple infants to become a servant in a wealthy home, nursing that family’s newborn. Could she save up enough to lease a sewing machine and rent a room, so she could reclaim her baby? Would her baby survive till then? What would be the relationship between the two mothers—the wealthy one who didn’t nurse her newborn, and the social pariah she’d hired to do so?”

Benton admits, “I had to fit the research and writing into a life crammed with motherhood and paying work. This was difficult, but the novel probably contains more layers of understanding and information as a result of all the years it took—things I wouldn’t have learned or found out if I’d written it more quickly. Since I live near the settings in which the novel occurs, I was able to visit many historical societies, sites, and neighborhoods, attend lectures and events, speak with experts, and examine documents from institutions that helped the poor.”

She hopes, she says, that “others will have the chance to read Lilli’s story and to consider the plights of single mothers and their children, in the past and in our own day.”

Like Benton, Meredith Jaeger, author of The Dressmaker’s Dowry (William Morrow, Feb. 2017), highlights the problems facing women and their roles and positions in society. Jaeger loves “immigrant stories, especially those told from a female perspective. Some of my favorite novels depict the struggles of young women new to America.”

As “the daughter of a Swiss immigrant,” she believes that “what makes our country great is its mixture of people and cultures. Millions of Americans have relatives who crossed the ocean by steamship, their faces filled with awe upon seeing New York Harbor for the first time. But as a proud Bay Area native, I wanted to tell a tale of San Francisco.”

Today the City by the Bay, Jaeger says, is “recognized mainly for its tech boom—attracting Silicon Valley investors and talented software engineers. Yet it has so much more to offer than start-ups. Beneath the Financial District, hundreds of ships are buried, their wooden bones serving as a reminder of the adventurous spirit of the Wild West.”

However, she explains, “in the late 1800s, San Francisco was a city divided, silver-rich Bonanza Kings clashing with working-class Chinese, Mexicans and Europeans. The high-end boutiques of Jackson Square were once saloons, opium dens and brothels. I’m a fan of Victorian architecture, and I drew inspiration from my surroundings. Looking at Queen Anne mansions in Pacific Heights and humble workers’ cottages in Dogpatch, I asked myself, who lived there?”

Delving into “San Francisco’s bawdy Barbary Coast,” she says, “I spun the story of a German immigrant and an Irish immigrant, young dressmakers trying to forge a better life for themselves. I also envisioned a modern-day writer in possession of a mysterious heirloom ring, tied to the missing dressmakers. My own heirloom ring, a delicate cluster of diamonds from 1903, belonged to my husband’s great-aunt. These threads allowed me to weave The Dressmaker’s Dowry, a generational tale of San Francisco’s past and its future, rooted in both fact and fiction.”

On the surface, it might appear that Mark Noce’s Between Two Fires (Thomas Dunne, Aug. 2016) has little in common with Jaeger’s novel. It is set in early medieval Wales. However, the common ground is that both books focus on women struggling against the odds. Noce has always been, he says, “interested in ‘Dark Ages.’ Not necessarily a thematically dark era, but something that has been neglected by the history books or forgotten altogether. This is where the genesis of my novel, Between Two Fires, was born. Very little reliable text and artifacts survive from the early medieval period in Wales, yet we can infer that it was a tumultuous time, full of barbarians, infighting, and unrest. Nonetheless, the people of Wales endured and their resilient spirit shone through all the brighter in subsequent centuries. But I was always interested in what actually happened during these mysterious ‘lost’ centuries in Wales.”

Noce states: “‘Today I will marry a man I have never met’ was the first line stuck in my head, and it refused to let go. It introduced me to a character named Branwen, a young woman in medieval Wales who must wed a stranger in order to save her kingdom. Torn between her love for another man and her duty to her people, she must come to grips with the dangers of medieval Wales as Saxon barbarians threaten to tear her world apart.

“I have always enjoyed stories about strong women, and frankly, I don’t think that there are enough tales of strong women portrayed in the media today. In essence, I was trying to write a novel that I’d always wanted to read, but hadn’t yet found on a bookshelf. A novel about a strong heroine standing tall against the odds during the historical backdrop of the early medieval Welsh era. So I decided to write it myself.”

Noce drew inspiration from “Arthurian lore,” he says, and “the surviving written records and archaeology of the era also offered tantalizing clues that enabled me to create a realistic, historical world that in many ways has been lost to us today… I hope that in some small way, my own attempt to shed light onto this fascinating but forgotten era will encourage others to delve deeper into the neglected epochs of history and to help unearth the literary treasures that await us there.”

In The Second Mrs. Hockaday (Algonquin, Jan. 2017) Susan Rivers has, like Noce, uncovered an overlooked corner of history. Rivers encountered a story while teaching at a summer school in 2014 when, she says, “I decided to revisit some notes I’d made a year earlier on a story idea about the Civil War. Looking through the jumble of historical materials at the library near my home, I stumbled across a summary of an 1865 inquest. As soon as I read it, I knew this was a story begging to be told in novel form. A Confederate soldier who had been away from his teenage wife for four years arrived home at war’s end to confront rumors that his bride had become pregnant while he was away. It was alleged that she had given birth to a son who had been killed and buried on their farm. Once the baby’s remains were dug up, the husband pushed to have his wife indicted for murder.  For her part, the young woman refused to name the baby’s father, to explain how the child was conceived, or to tell how he died.”

Rivers, she says, “was electrified by the plight of this young woman and by the extraordinary courage she must have possessed to face this ordeal alone. She hadn’t been able to tell her story in 1865, but I knew I could tell it in 2014. I gathered up my things and ran home from the library with the voice of my fictional major’s wife, the second Mrs. Hockaday, already telling me her story and a war-torn world taking shape around her.  The rest of that summer is a blur in my memory. That’s because writing this manuscript was the most intensely concentrated and inspiring process I have experienced in all my writing years. It was similar to falling in love: when you can’t eat, sleep, or think productively about anything but the beloved. It was all-consuming.”

Through their novels, Benton, Jaeger, Noce, and Rivers have illuminated the triumphs and tragedies of women whose lives were once hidden in the shadows of the past.

About the contributor: MYFANWY COOK is always humbled by the work of debut novelists and their ability to bring to life those who have so often been overlooked. Email (myfanwyc@btinternet.com) or tweet (twitter.com/MyfanwyCook) about debut novelists you recommend.

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Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 79, February 2017


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