If you don’t understand that the 18th century is magical then for goodness’ sake, go and read up about it. A century of change – and yet not. A century of Enlightenment and religious backlash, a century of possibilities and hesitation, a century of – well, look, there’s a reason why Charles Dickens’s opening page of A Tale Of Two Cities, set during the French Revolution (best of times, worst of times), is so back-and-forth. It was an age of many things, often wildly contradictory.
YA author Julie Mayhew, whose recent novel The Electrical Venus (Hot Key Books) is set during the time, writes of both the potential and daring of 18th-century science and its tendency to dehumanise its subjects. Her central characters, Alex and Mim, are “freaks” to be shown off at travelling fairs (“fayres”), because of either disability or race; her empathy for those characters was informed not just by a writer’s capacity to put themselves in someone else’s shoes but by the production of the radio play that the novel is based on.
“When we cast The Electrical Venus for the radio, the producer was sure to choose actors whose physicalities matched those of the characters. As one reviewer put it, you can’t hear this, but you can feel it.”
Mayhew is wary of the idea that she was writing “the other”, though – “I was writing about a desire to be loved, a lack of self-worth, a striving for understanding and recognition – I was always writing from the self. Class and gender divides are something I have felt personally – that sense of being kept down – so a lot of my fury from that fired this book.”
However, conscious of the specificities she was writing about, she “felt it important to share early drafts with a reading group at the Limbless Association who could read with an eye on my portrayal of Alex, and also friends who are mixed race and understood Mim’s experiences better than me.”
At the same time, she notes, “I don’t presume that everyone’s experiences are universal, but similarly a presumption that our strongest desires and needs are not shared beyond class, gender, race, disability, sexuality, etc, leads to unnecessary divides.”
This might sound like an obvious statement for most authors, but in YA – in which the question of who is “allowed” to tell certain stories is hotly contested – it’s a brave statement. But Mayhew’s work is brave; at times it even seems to leap past the typical YA boundaries.
The Electrical Venus, based on a radio play for adults, is one example; Mother Tongue, her Chekhov-inspired reflection on home, is another. Mayhew acknowledges that “there is a divide between the writing process and the publishing process – and so there should be. The first is a creative activity, the second is business. Keeping the two separate can be a struggle for writers but a worthwhile one. You must, where possible, write the book you truly want to write, an honest, heartfelt one, and then afterwards see where it can be published and to who.”
Despite being labelled, often, as a YA author (in prose if not in drama), she has “never written deliberately for young adults, but I am preoccupied with coming-of-age, that period in life when we realise exactly who we are, and this of course, resonates with an audience who are experiencing this, or about to, as well as those who have moved far beyond it. Nothing in my stories needs simplifying or making easier for younger minds though. When you’re 14 you are so often ready to hear the truth - I certainly was – and literature is a safe place to learn about the darker aspects of life. I feel honoured to be bringing literary titles onto the bookshelves of young people, and to have an adult readership too.”
Mayhew acknowledges that there is a “downside” to being read as YA: “others’ swift perceptions of children’s literature – that is, if it’s written for teenagers it must be throwaway or stupid.” At the same time, she’s reluctant to indulge such lazy stereotypes. “But what does that say about our perception of Generation Z as a whole? It says we need to keep finding intelligent writing that speaks to their fascinations, that’s what.”
Mayhew’s latest novel, which involved extensive research – “I lived the era vicariously through London’s museums, idling in the collections at the British Museum, the Museum of London and the Natural History Museum, and by wandering about the pickled specimens on show at the Hunterian. Sir John Soane’s Museum and the stunning Dennis Sever’s House gave me the immersive experience of living in an 18th-century home, while the Wellcome Collection delved into the minds of the Natural Philosophers with their burning desire to categorise everything they found” – should certainly be counted among the intelligent books that speak to readers’ fascinations, whether young or old.
And for anyone wondering, she hasn’t been to see the similarly circus/fair-themed The Greatest Showman yet. “I tend to stay away from stories that might have some crossover until I’m done writing. So I guess I can see it now, right?”
Claire Hennessy is a YA writer and commentator