In your dedication for The Countess Conspiracy, you mention Rosalind Franklin. Were there any other women scientists who inspired you to write the book? What else inspired you?
I have been sitting on this question for so long because there are a thousand different potential answers to this, and every time I made a list it got longer and longer. (There’s a little more in the afterword, too.) Lise Meitner! Marie Curie! Caroline Herschel! Ada Lovelace!
The list goes on and on and on, and I could make a hugely long list of people, and say nothing about any of them, or I could tell you the story of one person I discovered during research—someone I had no clue even existed, and who deserves to be recognized.
So let me tell you the story of one person.
Her name is Philippa Fawcett, and you might not have heard of her. The first college for women was Girton, founded in 1869, but it took more than a decade before women were examined alongside men. (And it was another woman who broke that barrier in 1881—she insisted on special rights to take the exam alongside the men, and she rocked it, outperforming most of the men, and winning the grudging admiration of all. But this is not about her.)
At the time, the mathematicians who took the Mathematical Tripos were ranked from the best (who was called the Senior Wrangler), through the Nth wrangler, and then the Optimes, who were sort of the second-classes, all the way down through the worst, who was awarded the Wooden Spoon.
Women were not included in the ranking, even after they started to take the same examinations. Instead, the female rankings were read separately, and it was announced where they would have placed, if they’d been men. Like, “Miss So and so, between the Ninth and the Tenth Wrangler.”
In 1890, when Philippa Fawcett took the Mathematical Tripos, people knew she was pretty good going into it, and everyone was wondering how she would do. So when they started to announce the women’s rankings, and they said, “Miss Philippa Fawcett, above the senior—” that’s all anyone heard because after that, everyone screamed their heads off. Men. Women. Everyone who was present, because in the moment they were all so excited because she had done an amazing thing.
Not only did she come in first, but her score was 13% higher than the guy who was Senior Wrangler—and think about what that means—thirteen percent higher than the man who was the best student in mathematics at one of the best universities in the world.
All the other people (including men) who took the exam stayed up crazy hours studying, and she was like, “I can’t do that, because once I rock this exam, I don’t want people saying, ?Oh, it’s only her freakishness!’” She was very, very aware that she was going to be setting an example. So she did all that without having the benefit of doing the same things that the men could do.
There were articles written about her all over the world, articles like, “Who knew? A woman has a brain that can do math! Maybe there is more than one of them out there.”
She helped break down a lot of barriers and I didn’t even know she existed until I started reading about women at Cambridge.
So all hail Philippa Fawcett, total bad ass.
Is there any possibility that Violet’s niece Amanda will get her own book someday?
The possibility is extremely slim that she will get her own book, and fairly good that she will show up in Free’s book.
Does Violet have some type of disorder in which she kept having miscarriages? It sounded similar to PCOS.
She does. I looked it up a long time ago in one of my husband’s Books of Medical Things that Suck, but I don’t remember what it was, and when I asked him to look it up for me again he gave me a look.
So interpret that one to be whatever you like.
Has Sebastian had sexual interactions with men as well as women? The line about counting mutual masturbation as the times when he had sex seemed to indicate so, but there was no other comment in the book. Was this alluding to something else? If not, what are your thoughts regarding Sebastian’s romps with the same sex, and portraying a queer male lead in a historical setting?
I think it’s perfectly possible to have mutual masturbation between men and women, and if you were trying to avoid child birth/sexual disease, you’d do just that.
I also think that boys who went to Eton or some other such school… If you’re around boys, and only boys, all the time, with little supervision and a lot of hormones, stuff is going to happen, and I don’t just mean that in the way that it’s usually portrayed, which is as some form of bullying rape. My guess is there was a decent amount of same-sex experimentation, and I’m sure some of it persisted. Ditto for girls and finishing schools. And soldiers? Don’t even get me started.
The canon about Sebastian’s former lovers is sparse. He is discreet.
Until the point when I explicitly specify in a book that such contact has or has not occurred, I leave the existence of such contact up to the reader.
The only character I have written who has canonically stated the precise degree of his sexuality is Richard Dalrymple. He’s 100% gay.
The book mentions that Sebastian wouldn’t married Violet when he was sixteen, then he got over her for a while, but then he fell in love with her again, but do you have any idea how/when did Sebastian realize he was in love with Violet?
It came on gradually. When she was first married (and relatively happy in the marriage), he did his best to think of her as “old friend that I had a huge crush on as a child, but it was just puppy love and now I’m older and even though I still remember what it felt like, it’s not like that any more.”
There were many years after that where he wouldn’t admit to himself how he really felt.
The point where he thought Violet was going to die was a real wake-up call in terms of his own feelings. Thinking you’re going to lose someone will do that to you. But I think if you asked Sebastian to pinpoint the time when he fell in love with her again, he wouldn’t be able to do it.