British author Saunders launches a new Victorian mystery series with The Secrets of Wishtide, which explores the public and private faces of 1850 London.
You’ve noted that you have loved Victorian fiction since childhood; why do you think the fiction of that era resonated so strongly with you?
I was lucky enough to grow up in a house that was overflowing with books of every kind, from Portnoy’s Complaint to Winnie-the-Pooh. Both my parents were addictive readers, and—most important—they never tried to control what their children read. (Krafft-Ebbing! What were they thinking? But it improved my Latin.) The 19th century was the golden age of fiction; I roamed at will among perilous stacks of vast Victorian novels, and even the bad ones (anything by Bulwer-Lytton) made me feel I was looking into another world. A great Victorian novel should make you cry buckets. Towards the end of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens discovered that he could do pathos as well as comedy, and he never looked back. I can’t read him in public anymore.
You’ve said that you were inspired by David Copperfield.
Dickens’s David Copperfield has been my favorite novel since I was a teenager. Without giving too much away, Mrs. Rodd’s first case was inspired by a certain strand of plot in that book that has increasingly annoyed me over the years. I want to climb right inside the story and interfere.
Mrs. Rodd is a 52-year-old widow with no money—quite a modern situation. Where did she come from?
I invented Laetitia Rodd when I was 52, divorced and penniless, so I had no trouble identifying with her situation. All these years later, the lone middle-aged female is still fighting for her place in the world—but we have it easy compared with Mrs. Rodd, who takes up private investigating because it’s the only alternative to being a governess.
Was Mrs. Rodd inspired by any particular person or character?
My splendid heroine was designed so that she wouldn’t look out of place if she strolled into the pages of Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Yonge, or George Eliot. She is too sensible for the Brontës.
Mrs. Rodd’s friend and landlady, Mary Bentley, offers a working-class perspective on the story. Where did you find her?
Mrs. Bentley was a real person: wife of the Hampstead postman, mother of a string of red-haired boys, and the landlady of the poet John Keats, many years before my story begins. I’ve always liked reading about her in biographies of the poet; she was kind to the Keats brothers, even when they complained about the noise.