The History in Historical Women's Fiction "A White Room"


I spent six months conducting the initial research for A White Room and continued that research whenever uncertainties and curiosities arose. Anytime I work on the book, I end up looking up historical facts to make sure I am not missing anything.

photo credit: jondresner via photopin cc
Let’s start with setting. A White Room is set in Labellum, Missouri, which is a fictional town I made up, but it’s a town inspired by Hannibal, Missouri – Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) and Titanic’s Molly Brown came from Hannibal. It’s believed Mark Twain set his Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer novels in Hannibal although he did not name the town that in the books. Mark Twain visited Hannibal up until he died. The last time he visited was 1902.

Originally, my novel contained a scene where my main character Emeline Dorr bumps into a man named Samuel Clemens. This was my little shout out to Mark Twain, but after I decided to change the name of the town, it seemed better to remove it from the final manuscript. Mark Twain’s family home, a white house along with a white picket fence (believed to be the fence painted by Huck and Tom), still stands today. Using local history books, photos, and Google Earth, I did my best to recreate historical Hannibal, Missouri. After so much effort to accurately describe Hannibal, I ultimately decided to rename the town because the story involves the town and nothing like what happens in the story ever happened in Hannibal that I know of and it could be taken as offensive.

Photo from Dave's Victorian House Site
The reason I chose Hannibal in the first place wasn’t because of the town, but because of a house. The house described in A White Room is a real home called the Doyle-Mounce house, which was built in 1880 and is located in Hannibal. It’s called the Doyle-Mounce house because it was built by a 
Mr. Doyle and altered by a Mr. Mounce. In the book I describe the real exterior of the house, but the inside is all a fabrication of my own because there are no photos of the inside available online. I chose this house because I didn’t know how to describe a Victorian home, and I wanted something that was dark and creepy, but I also wanted it to be white to reflect the overall concept of a white room. Long behold this house screamed out at me like a massive beast. It wanted to be a star!

The furniture described in A White Room is also based on real historical furniture from the times – primarily from the Art Nouveau trend, which incorporated living creatures and winding appendages into the art, furniture, and architecture. I combed through tons of Victorian furniture books and antique guides searching for pieces to go in Emeline’s home and eventually come to life in her hallucinations.

photo credit: h_dwight_beers via photopin cc
I couldn’t just make this stuff up. I had to make it as accurate to the times as possible because this furniture is going to do some weird stuff that isn’t based on fact. Everything described in great detail in the book is based on real objects, including the owl bowl, John’s desk and chair, the bizarre dishes and glowing decanters, the cabinets with windy appendages, and the mirror with the woman flowing into a metallic wave of wind and butterflies. Check out the Art Nouveau style HERE! 

Insanity! Emeline’s hallucinations are not based on a factual mental disorder but a dramatization of the common disorder of the late 19th century and early 20th century called hysteria. This condition is most well known from the literary short story The Yellow Wallpaper, which was an inspiration for A 

White Room. At this time period psychology was becoming well known and popular. Hysteria was the funny disorder characterized by hundreds of different symptoms, so any kind of out-of-the-norm behavior, specifically among women, could lead to a diagnosis of hysteria. The causes of hysteria were also wide and varied – the simplest being too much or too little stimulation/stress – and the most bizarre being wild theories of female organs (usually the uterus) floating unrestrained within the body and effecting the brain. Sexual dysfunction and dissatisfaction also came into play.

The primary cures for hysteria were the water cure (dunking or resting in hot and cold baths) and sensory deprivation, meaning bed rest and absolutely no mental, emotional, or other stimulation. This is the cure that drove some women, and Emeline Dorr in my novel, deeper into insanity because they were expected to lay in bed and do nothing for long periods of time. When sexual issues were considered an issue,  manual and electric stimulation were used to release the “nervous tension” and at times the goal was to produce an orgasm.

photo credit: rockcreek via photopin cc
Hysteria in women was often a reflection of various stressors occurring in the domestic realm during this time period, i.e. women were entering the workforce and seeking independence for the first time, but society still needed women in the domestic sphere in order to provide food, clothing, sanitation, basic education, religious guidance, and order to the family. However, at the turn of the century factory production, new technology, and new trends were changing the face of domesticity, which allowed for women to leave the home for the first time.

Still, society at large did not recognize these changes as they were occurring. Usually, the women diagnosed with hysteria were rebelling against traditional domestic roles in some form or another – many were trying to gain independence, were sexually promiscuous (which could be a minimum of one partner outside of marriage), or were accused of lesbianism. Those are the most obvious circumstances, but all kinds of women with all kinds of symptoms were diagnosed.

The idea of professionalizing medicine and eradicating midwives and unlicensed nurses was a real movement at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20thcentury. Hunting down abortionists like witches was also a very real legal movement. When caught male investigators would interrogate the people involved and force them to describe information about the medical procedure involving a woman’s genitalia. At the time, this was something people did not talk about openly, so those involved felt degraded, mortified, and sometimes even traumatized.

photo credit: Robert T Bell via photopin cc
The dying confession described in my novel was the one exception to the hearsay rule. It allowed for testimonies given by women before they died from an abortion to be held up as firm as a live testimony in court. Investigators pushed women who had abortions to give up the abortionist because it could be used as a definitive testimony in court if the woman did not survive.

These are just some of the larger historical ideas in A White Room,but almost every detail in the book has been researched and tailored to the times, from the clothing, speech, etiquette, women at college, mourning rituals, dinner party procedure, home features, medical procedures, medical ailments, etc. Even some of the nursing Emeline conducts is based on accounts by female nurses at the time. Emeline’s lack of knowledge about sex and the idea that no one would tell her, so she would just find out on her wedding night is based on accounts given by women in letters and journals at the time.

The history of men and women at the turn of the century is extremely intriguing because it wasn’t just the beginning of a new century, it was also the beginning of many major changes in the world. Within a decade the New Woman of the 1920s would appear; technology would be on the rise with electricity, phones, and airplanes; not to mention World War, and so much more. I hope everyone gets a kick out of how fact weaves into fiction in this crazy book.

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