Kitty Burns Florey is the author of twelve books, including the national bestseller Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History & Lost Art of Sentence Diagramming. It was while conducting research for her most recent non-fiction project, Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting, that she became inspired to write a historical novel about an expert penman. She has lived in Boston, Brooklyn, and New Haven, and is now living in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she is working on a sequel to THE WRITING MASTER.
She will be reading and signing copies of her book in the Victorian Room of the Allis-Bushnell House, 853 Boston Post Road in Madison, in a celebration of National Handwriting Day, courtesy of the Madison Historical Society and R. J. Julia Booksellers. Come and meet Kitty at 7 p.m. on Thursday, January 23, 2014,
to hear about this novel, which is set in 1856 in the thriving city of New Haven.
This contemporary Victorian novel begins with one fateful letter and ends with another. It tells the story of a summer in the life of a young man named Charles Cooper, a teacher of writing – a penman – at a time when a fast, legible script was indispensible for a gentleman, and the gloriously embellished script of a master of the art was held in deep respect.
Charles’s anguished attempts to come to terms with the tragic accident that killed his wife and baby son are complicated by Lily Prescott, his sometime student – an unconventional woman with a shady past and an uncertain future that she is trying her calculating best to improve. When a brutal murder takes place just outside the city, Charles – as an expert penman – becomes involved in its solution, along with Harold Milgrim, an amateur detective in the mold of Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. The consequences of his involvement are both unexpected and far-reaching.
Strongly influenced by the author’s love of nineteenth-century fiction and her immersion in New England history – and inspired by her 2009 nonfiction book, Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting, The Writing Master meticulously evokes another age, one of sooty railroad journeys, extravagantly inconvenient clothing, strict social codes, and severe penalties for their transgression – as well as the timeless passions and aspirations of a cast of memorable characters.
Here is Kitty Burns Florey, herself, answering questions about her work.
New Haven was the perfect setting. Not only do I know it well, but its history, its architecture, the magnificent New Haven Green, the surrounding towns, the college — all added up to exactly what I needed. I was also glad to get to know Wethersfield, where part of the action takes place. I chose it for its location — a short but not too short distance from New Haven — but I also spent a couple of days walking around the town and was enchanted. It has more 18th-– and 19th-century houses than any other town in New England and an excellent historical society.
Most women in Lily’s day and of her class were raised to be as nondescript as possible: to do what was expected of them, to be conventional wives and mothers. I was interested in writing about someone who crossed a boundary or two. It was a fine line to walk — too outrageous and she would be an anachronism, too much a damsel in distress and I’d get tired of her. Lily is in a difficult situation and certainly has her helpless moments, but I feel that, for all her faults, she does her best to make her way in a world that is often unkind to women.
I realized only recently that many of my novels are about people who, in one way or another, are alone in the world. Most of my protagonists are women, but even when I write about men, they’re men who don’t fit into the worlds they live in. What interests me is how my characters deal with that — either coming to terms with it or changing it.
I became absolutely fascinated with fashions and especially with the dress reform movement. People in “real” Victorian novels never complain about the hot, constricting clothing everyone wore — like their creators, they take it for granted. Dress reformers were seen as a bit nutty. But writing about a hot 1856 summer during a hot 21st-century summer, I kept thinking about comfort and discomfort. There I was in my cool summer clothes writing about people in hoop skirts! Waistcoats! Top hats! Corsets! So I slipped some of the contemporary notions about dress reform into the book.