Hester Fox on Facing the Ugly Truths of the Victorian Era
In Conversation with Gabrielle Martin on the New Books Network
Augusta is a meek museum curator trapped in a dead-end job and relationship, when an employment offer to become the collections manager at Harlowe House changes her life. With new friends and new responsibilities, as well as a new handsome coworker, Augusta is drawn to investigate the life of Margaret Harlowe. Margaret’s portrait at Harlowe House radiates vivaciousness and warmth, but the historic records barely mention her. Soon, Augusta is obsessed by the secret life story of the mysterious young woman she feels connected to.
Was Margaret just a woman unjustly ostracized by Victorian society for her wild nature and her love of herbs, or is she a more dangerous presence? For although Margaret died more than a hundred years ago, her spirit is still very present, and her voice active. A ghost story with a strong romantic element, A Lullaby for Witches (Graydon House Books, 2022) features a tender love story as well as some thrills and chills.
Gabrielle Martin: You write, “How easy it was for the past to become gilded, a shimmering memory of what was nothing more than an ugly truth.” Can nostalgia become sentimentality, which obscures harder realities?
Hester Fox: Yes, absolutely. I love history so I write about it; I think it’s interesting, and there are romantic aspects I love—fashion, for instance. I had to grapple with reality in the book. There are ugly truths. It’s not all pretty dresses and upper-class history, which is what we really romanticize when we think of the beautiful balls. It’s interesting when we peel that back and face some truth.
Gabrielle Martin: Margaret has one friend while she is alive. Do you use the persona of her friend to portray certain truths about the Victorian era?
Hester Fox: I believe you’re talking about Phoebe. The novel takes place in the 1870s in the North. Phoebe is a black woman. There hasn’t been slavery in Massachusetts for quite some time. We see how racist society is at that time and place. Phoebe is Margaret’s best friend—or only friend. Even Margaret doesn’t treat her well. She’s her friend, but she sees her—not as a means to an end—but she still uses her and her knowledge of magic.
It’s an uncomfortable realization for Margaret when she realizes she hasn’t been the friend she thought she was being. I hope she’s an interesting character in her own right, but she does hold up a mirror to society. She might be a free woman but that’s not how she is treated. She and Margaret are outcasts in the town but there are still different societal forces about why they are outcasts.
Hester Fox is a full-time writer and mother, with a background in museum work and historical archaeology. She is the author of The Witch of Willow Hall and The Widow of Pale Harbor, as well as Lullaby for Witches.
You can follow Gabrielle Martin on Twitter to get updates about new podcasts and more @GabrielleAuthor.