The Muse strikes at the strangest times, as Virginia Heath explores with us this month...
The cartoon is by the famous Georgian satirist James Gillray in case you were wondering. And rather bizarrely it is about smallpox vaccination. An odd topic, granted, to choose as inspiration for a romance. But more of that later. First I want to discuss inspiration in general- or The Muse if I want to be all writerly- because it’s a tricky subject for me.
You see my Muse is an odd fish. I have no idea when it will strike or what it’s going to come up with next. I can’t channel it, predict it or even summon it at will. Like an A-list celebrity party-hopping on Oscar night, it is fickle and flighty and yet strangely reliable. So far, it’s never left me hanging and tends to make a grand appearance just before I finish my current manuscript or in the few days off that I give myself in between books. For my debut novel it arrived whilst I was vacuuming. A title popped into my head. That Despicable Rogue. I remember thinking as I used one of the attachments to suck the wrinkled crisp packets my son discarded out of the crevices of the sofa, that’s a good title. I should probably write that book. So I did and it got me published.
My second book involved a door knob, or to be more specific my daughter’s door knob which was bravely hanging on to the wood by the single thread of a solitary screw. She’s tempestuous you see, and prone to flounce and slam said door, and Mr H refused to fix the door because he hoped she would get shut in during one of her short, incendiary temper tantrums so we could all have a laugh. It should be noted (for the sake of family harmony) that beneath that occasional termagant is a lovely, quirky girl with a heart of gold- but it was the knob which called to Ms Muse and gave me a character. Constance Stuart from Her Enemy at the Altar. A heroine I still love to bits for all her flouncing and arm waving. See, I told you my muse was odd.
For my third book, I blame too much prosecco and a history documentary on the BBC. There was a small segment on Georgian etiquette books. The idea of there being behaviour books covering everything from how to fold your napkin to how to sack your butler for theft seemed very funny after several glasses of bubbles. ‘Ooh,’ said my Muse, ‘Wouldn’t that be a hilarious premise for a book? Especially if you made the hero write one. He could call it The Discerning Gentleman’s Guide for Selecting the Perfect Bride.’ To give the Muse some credit it was a stonking idea and I immediately set to work, ever-so-slightly inebriated, writing little snippets from his masterpiece to begin each chapter and went to bed giggling. Not only did all those drunk words stay in the finished novel, they also earned me a RONA nomination! A sure sign if ever there was one that I should never question my lovely odd Muse.
I caught the tail end of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers on the TV, which reminded me how much I love that film. Those poor down on their luck Pontypees, all in such desperate want of a wife they go out and steal them. I went to bed humming Bless Her Beautiful Hide, slept for seven hours straight (a miracle for me now I am that age) and when I woke up I had a whole series in my head. Just like their celluloid cousins, my Wild Warriners are sinfully handsome brothers, down on their luck and desperately in want of a wife. Except Jack Warriner didn’t steal his bride in A Warriner to Protect Her. Somebody else did. But she escaped and he found her…
A Warriner to Rescue Her was meant to be filled with suspense and intrigue, what with Jamie Warriner being a former soldier and all. But Ms Muse had other ideas after I went sorting through some boxes in my loft and stumbled across an old Beatrix Potter book. Instead of going off on an adventure, Jamie’s damsel in distress turned out to be stuck up an apple tree who writes books about her talking horse Orange Blossom. Cassie, the heroine, was easy to write, because the Muse decided she was a lot like me. So that was nice, if a little unexpected.
But what about that cartoon, I hear you say. Well that one must have been bubbling around in my subconscious for ages because I first encountered it in 2004 when I began my teaching career. I taught history to teenagers and part of the GCSE examination was medicine through time. I had to teach my students about the brilliant work of Dr Edward Jenner, who noticed that milkmaids and dairy farmers never seemed to contract smallpox.
Through careful observation he discovered that upon first working with cows, the milkmaids caught a disease from them. Cowpox is a lot like chicken pox. You get an itchy rash, feel ill for a few days and then you are as right as ninepence. He experimented with this, using the crusty cowpox scabs ground into a powder which he then injected into people, and discovered that once you’d had cowpox you couldn’t get smallpox. He called this amazing discovery vaccination because vacca is Latin for cow.
Despite the fact that Jenner’s vaccination was so effective smallpox has now been completely eradicated, the people at the time thought it was horrendous and feared for their souls. When the government made smallpox vaccination compulsory there were riots. Surely it was ungodly to put an animal illness in people? Who knew what would happen to the human body!
In the cartoon, Gillray brilliantly shows the genuine fear of vaccination from the time. If you look closely, you’ll see people sprouting horns and women giving birth to cows. There’s even a little reminder from the Bible of what happened to the people who worshipped false idols. I always loved this cartoon but I never had any plans to write a romance centred around it. Until I made Joe Warriner a doctor and the Muse kept nagging.
When I pitched the seed of the idea to my lovely editor I think she was a little taken aback. Smallpox and crusty cowpox scabs aren’t exactly sexy, they certainly aren’t funny. However, she let me run with it and trusted my judgement just as I keep trusting my odd Muse. She loved the finished result and so do I. It’s touching, eye-opening, has my trademark funny in places and is very romantic. And it hasn’t just got smallpox in it. There is a whole host of crackpot 19th century medical ideas crammed into A Warriner to Tempt Her. As well as a riot. The Muse was most insistent about that too. Who am I to argue? She hasn’t steered me wrong yet.
Virginia Heath's latest release, A Warriner to Tempt Her, is out now. For more information about her and her writing, check out her website, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.