Author Jane Eagland has written a guest post on the subject of sex in her YA novel Wildthorne. Thank you, Jane, for taking the time to do this.
In my novel, Wildthorn, ( published by Macmillan in March this year) the heroine Louisa discovers that she has sexual feelings for another girl. This is only one thread of the story, which is mainly about the fact that Louisa finds herself locked in a lunatic asylum and has to find out who has betrayed her and why.
It wasn’t a conscious decision to make her unconventional in her personal life (I don’t like the label ‘lesbian’ and in any case the word wouldn’t have been used at the time the novel is set – 1876); I don’t want to sound ‘precious’, but as I explored her character, it just seemed to arise naturally – that was who she was. And it fitted in well with the rest of the novel as she is someone who refuses to conform to the then very narrow role that society expected of a middle class girl, ie that she should be a wife and mother. The novel is about Louisa discovering who she is and not feeling ashamed of it, which I hope resonates with readers today.
Once I realized this about her, I did wonder about making this the motive for her incarceration, but after some research, I discovered that at that time it was acceptable for girls to have passionate friendships, without necessarily having sexual feelings for one another - they would embrace and kiss and write and say extravagant things to each other. The notion that such intimacy was somehow abnormal or to be frowned on didn’t arise till a later bit later. So I had to think of something else.
There is a sex scene in the book, but it’s not explicit, partly because that’s what I felt comfortable writing and partly because I think leaving things to the reader’s imagination can be more powerful than spelling them out!
I was quite surprised but pleased that this aspect of my novel was accepted by my editor without comment. I’ve heard that some publishers are edgy about taboo subjects and for example some writers have had to change what seems like mild swearing. I did wonder if the fact that it was a historical novel somehow made it ‘safer’. At one point there was a discussion about putting ‘for older teens’ on the cover but then they decided not to which I was glad about because it avoids suggesting that the unconventional relationship is a big deal.
When asked, though, I do find myself suggesting that the book is suitable for readers of 14 +, because as an ex-teacher I’m aware that if it’s in a school library some parents might object to younger children reading it, but that’s as much because the asylum scenes are rather ‘dark’ as because of the love interest.
In reviewing the book, several people have commented on the love element, favourably and unfavourably. It doesn’t surprise me, but I did wonder if it would have received so much attention if it had been a boy-girl relationship. Some people have even written about it as if it were an add-on element that clouds the issue of Louisa’s struggle to have a career and one that could be dispensed with. This did surprise me since to me it was an essential part of who Louisa was and I wasn’t consciously writing an ‘issue’ novel. Enough people, teens and adults, have written positive comments about it to reassure me that for many readers it’s not a problem.
Having said that, with my next novel the editor has made it clear she would prefer a heterosexual romance. Possibly this is to broaden the book’s appeal and while I don’t feel strongly about it, a small part of me does feel that I’m selling out by giving in to the pressure to conform and reflect the ‘norm.’ I think Louisa would be disappointed in me!
Thank you Jane, for the wonderful post!
Buy Wildthorn from Amazon UK and The Book Depository.