I’m so lucky today – a double helping of Thursday Themes (like double chocolate pudding but without the calories!).
It’s my great pleasure to welcome back Kate Braithwaite to my blog, to discuss the themes of her latest novel.
Over to you, Kate…
For those who have never come across her before, Nellie Bly was an American journalist famous for undercover reporting and exposes that were ground-breaking for a woman to undertake in the late 19th Century. I first came across Nellie quite by chance, and when I learned that her first big break came when she feigned madness and was committed to a lunatic asylum, I had to know more. The Girl Puzzle is her story – historical fiction, but very true to her biography – and it tells the story of Nellie, aged 23, when she carried out her asylum adventure, and then also what happened when she was much older, in her fifties, living in New York and running an informal adoption agency from her hotel room.
Nellie Bly was born in 1864 and her real name was Elizabeth Cochran. Her family called her Pink. As a teenager, she added an e to her surname – probably to make it more grand sounding – but she became Nellie Bly when she got her first job as a writer, for the Pittsburg Dispatch. All lady writers were expected use a pseudonym in those days and there were some classics. Bessie Bramble is one of my favourites! In terms of my novel, The Girl Puzzle, I wanted to ask questions throughout the story about what kind of person does the adventurous things Nellie Bly did. In the story, we hear from her secretary Beatrice, who knows Nellie Bly when she is much older, and calls her Miss Bly. And Miss Bly gives Beatrice her story from her younger days to type up. Nellie Bly had already told her story – as a reporter – in the first person. I chose to have her write about herself in the third person, as Elizabeth, not Nellie. This choice gives my fictionalized Nellie Bly the space to talk about what happened in a way she never did in real life. I’m aiming to emphasize the person she was, in contrast with the person she became. People can be different depending on where they are in their lives and who they are with – and I think that was very true of Nellie Bly.
Throughout The Girl Puzzle, I made conscious choices to show how dangerous it was for a twenty-three year old woman to feign madness in order to be committed to an insane asylum. Nellie’s physical safety is under threat even before she gets there. She’s accosted on the street on the way to her boarding house. An ambulance man pushes himself up against her as he takes her to Bellevue Hospital. And in the Hospital itself, two doctors visit her at night with no nurses present. As for the dangers she faced inside the lunatic asylum on Blackwell’s Island? Well hopefully people will read the book to find out! Nellie Bly believed that women were just as capable as men and her bravery changed the landscape of newspaper reporting in terms of opportunities for women. Her physical vulnerability is a very important aspect of her story, emphasising just how brave she really was.
Although I didn’t know it when I started, The Girl Puzzle, has a lot to say about mothers. There’s Nellie’s relationship with her own mother – a slow burner that becomes more important as the story progresses. Then there is the girl, Dorothy, who Nellie Bly semi-adopts after Dorothy’s mother abandons her. The story of Nellie Bly in her later years is told through the eyes of one of her secretaries, Beatrice, and she and the other secretaries, not such extraordinary characters as Nellie Bly was, bring different takes to the question of women in the workplace, and in particular, working mothers. One of my favourite aspects of writing historical fiction, is the way issues or stories from the past can still clearly resonate today, and I think that’s particularly true with this novel.
Her published story is well known. But did she tell the whole truth about her ten days in the madhouse? Down to her last dime and offered the chance of a job of a lifetime at The New York World, twenty-three-year old Elizabeth Cochrane agrees to get herself admitted to Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum and report on conditions from the inside. But what happened to her poor friend, Tilly Mayard? Was there more to her high praise of Dr Frank Ingram than everyone knew? Thirty years later, Elizabeth, known as Nellie Bly, is no longer a celebrated trailblazer and the toast of Newspaper Row. Instead, she lives in a suite in the Hotel McAlpin, writes a column for The New York Journal and runs an informal adoption agency for the city’s orphans. Beatrice Alexander is her secretary, fascinated by Miss Bly and her causes and crusades. Asked to type up a manuscript revisiting her employer’s experiences in the asylum in 1887, Beatrice believes she’s been given the key to understanding one of the most innovative and daring figures of the age.
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