Unfreezing History: Sara Sheridan’s The Ice Maiden

Sara Sheridan on her fascination with writing historical fiction

Sara Sheridan’s latest novel The Ice Maiden (Severn House, 2018) is set in the nineteenth century, but her career as a novelist began with writing contemporary fiction. The transition to writing historical fiction developed from, she says, “constantly referring back to historical events. Truth or Dare, my first book, was set in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, but everything I had to say was linked to history.”

In her second novel, Ma Polanski’s Pockets, Sheridan notes, “the whole story was really about what had happened after the Second World War, though it is set in contemporary Scotland. So, after The Pleasure Express came out, which was set in Hong Kong at the time of the handover in 1999 and again it reached back far further, I thought I should just start writing stories set in the past.”

While Sheridan was writing these novels, she read some historical fiction that inspired her, including Water Music (Little Brown, 1981) by TC Boyle. It was and is “a masterclass on how to write a brilliant historical novel,” says Sheridan, who also discovered the story of Robert Fortune: “I began to read around it and knew I’d found my subject. The resulting novel, The Secret Mandarin, tells Fortune’s story as he goes into 1840s China on an industrial espionage mission for the East India Company after the Opium War, but from the viewpoint of his sister-in-law. And I was off!”

Sheridan’s writing includes TV tie-in books for such series as the popular Victoria and the Mirabelle Bevan series set in the 1950s. Her Mirabelle series of novels is set primarily in 1951 Brighton, at a time of postwar austerity when many people were trying to adjust to the deep scars left by their experiences during the Second World War. This crime series is centred around the tenacious ex-Secret Service agent Mirabelle Bevan. In these novels, Vesta Churchill, who assists Mirabelle in her investigations, has provided Sheridan with the opportunity to explore racial tensions in 1950s Britain. Another key character is Detective Superintendent Alan McGregor. He initially displays the prejudices of men working within certain professions during that era, but as the series progresses, the balance of power changes.

Sheridan admits she has two favourite periods in history that she loves to write about: “The 1820s-1850s, which was the point at which the British Empire really took off, and the 1950s when it began to tail away. The Empire is massive in British cultural consciousness. The current political situation in the UK, with Brexit, is in part fired by nostalgia for empire. So, I always felt drawn to these periods.”

In 2018 Sheridan was working on an overview of Scottish female history, Where are the Women? This non-fiction book will be published in 2019 by Historic Environment Scotland. She found writing this book to be fascinating. It required, she says, “fitting female history around these two periods, which I know well, discovering new facts that impact our culture today.”

Writing about the role of women in the context of the society of the time is “crucial” for Sheridan. However, when writing novels, she is not trying to use them as tools to educate readers about the role of women in the past. For Sheridan, it is all about the story, because she says, “I’m a reader as much as I’m a writer, and I’m driven to write books which give other readers the experience I crave of disappearing inside a story.”

This doesn’t mean that she is not stimulated when she spots things that relate directly to, as she describes it, “where we are today – culturally or politically.” She is “a massive feminist” and started a feminist beauty brand with her daughter, as well as making a perfume that commemorates forgotten women from history. She runs a “pan-feminist blog called Bitches Unite,” and Sheridan admits, “I’d be lying if I said when I write fiction, I’m not looking at our foremothers and making connections to the lives of present-day women.” Nonetheless, for Sheridan, this doesn’t mean anything without “the story magic… so it’s story first and the rest is enrichment.”

Her novel, The Ice Maiden, is set in 1842. The central character, Katrina, is stranded on Deception Island in the South Shetlands archipelago after the death of her husband. Katrina takes the bold step of stowing away as a cabin boy on a ship headed further into the Antarctic. Sheridan had read about James Clark Ross’s expedition to Antarctica and was “hooked” by it. The ship Katrina stows away on is Ross’s vessel. “He spent three summers in the Antarctic, never venturing into the interior, simply mapping the exterior of the continent,” Sheridan explains. “It was brave and dangerous and hugely Empire driven.” These are the reasons that convinced Sheridan to write about the impact it had and “to examine those hugely male figures – adventurers and warriors – and the way they related to women.”

Another source of inspiration for this novel came from the almost “mythical” story about Robert Falcon Scott, which she’d heard as a child: “So when I heard about Ross’s early expedition and that Scott used Ross’s maps, well, that was it. There was such glamour to it. I came up with the female voice from a number of sources. For my book, On Starlit Seas, which is the story of Maria Graham in Brazil, I had read a little about women on whaling stations in the South Atlantic, so that was a natural place to go to as I hadn’t used the material. It seemed like an adventure.”

Sheridan has never visited Antarctica and, as she points out, “in most cases the places I am writing about aren’t there anymore. British ports in China in 1842 don’t exist these days.”

However, she admits to being a “swot” and works from contemporary papers, art and newsprint to discover these places. Her research consisted of “camping” in the Scott Polar Institute, the National Library of Scotland and the Royal Geographical Society where she “fell headlong into the papers.”

About the contributor: Myfanwy Cook is an associate fellow at two British universities and a creative writing workshop designer. Find her online at www.myfanwycook.com

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 87 (February 2019)

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