So19 talks with MICHELLE LOVRIC

As a longtime fan of British author Michelle Lovric’s intricate, inventive, and vividly atmospheric novels, I was delighted to see her journey down some of the odder (and hairier) byways of the nineteenth century in The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters, published in 2014 by Bloomsbury in both the UK and USA. The novel offers both an absorbing realistic narrative and the magical pleasures of parable and fable; similarly, it’s at once true to the historical realities of its period and entirely contemporary in its relevance, themes and questions. Add to that a story touching on objectification of the female body, medical misconception and quackery, financial success and chicanery, sisterly bonds and conflicts, and some of the best female character names since the Bible (not to mention another score of items too lengthy to mention here) and you have a book that’s the narrative equivalent of a wunderkammern. I won’t go further here, as this introduction is growing as long as the Swiney Godivas’ tresses, but please visit the author's website for her biography latest news….and note that UK readers will be able to buy The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters as well as Carnevale, The Floating Book, and The Remedy in new paperback editions this June. All that said, Society Nineteen is delighted to talk with Michelle Lovric about the novel, her work, and more.  —SF

So19: As you say in your (wonderfully detailed) Historical Notes, your fictional sisters have a historical counterpart in the Seven Sutherland Sisters. Can you tell us a bit about your introduction to these women and their appeal to you as “seed material” for a novel?

ML: As a writer of historical fiction with a surgical twist to it, I have two guardian angels. One is my father Vladimir, a paediatric haematologist. The other is William Helfand, an eminent medical historian. Bill’s always engaged on the most extraordinary and esoteric researches, which he kindly shares with me when we have lunch. It was at one of these lunches that Bill dropped the Seven Sutherland Sisters into my lap, as a tidbit I might enjoy. He urged me to look them up. From the moment I first saw the extraordinary photograph of Sarah, Victoria, Isabella, Naomi, Grace, Dora and Mary standing with their backs to the camera, their hair tumbling to the ground in hairy waterfalls,  I knew I’d soon be writing a novel about hair.

Bill, of course, knew that before I did.

The Sutherland Sisters were born in Lockport, Niagara County, between 1845 and 1864 and grew up poverty and isolation. Their only riches grew on their heads—long, thick, healthy hair. Their mother died young, but before her death she prepared a home-made ointment for her daughters’ hair, the unpleasant smell of which made them unpopular at school.

Their father, Fletcher, saw in his daughters’ thriving hair a way to enrich the whole family. He cultivated their singing voices and stage career. The Sutherland Sisters joined Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth in 1883.

Naomi married J. Henry Bailey, then employed in the dining tent, in 1885. By this time Fletcher, with Bailey’s help, was marketing a Seven Sutherland Sisters “Hair Grower.” The Seven Sutherland Sisters Corporation was based in New York. It all worked like a well-oiled machine: the circus made the sisters household names and the Hair Grower made $90,000 in its first year. Soon they added a Scalp Cleaner Comb and Colorators in eight shades.

Though they are now forgotten, The Sutherland Sisters were a household name in America for decades. They made at least $3 million from their products, with 28,000 sales dealerships in the USA. Their best years were between 1886 and 1907, but they continued until 1917. They built themselves a great Gothic mansion in Lockport, fitted out with turrets, cupolas and chandeliers.

They owned at least seventeen cats and seven dogs, the latter arrayed in handsome handmade collars. Expensive funerals were held for the pets when they died.

But the sisters outspent their massive income. With the advent of the bob, their hair products lost popularity. The mansion was sold, with much Sutherland Sisters ephemera abandoned in the attics. Far from the days of the lavish pet funerals, sixteen of their cats were mass-chloroformed and buried in burlap sacks.

Four sisters never married. Isabella married twice, both times to men much younger than herself. Her first husband, Frederick H. Castlemaine, was an intellectual morphine addict, obsessed with guns. He died of a drug overdose in 1896.

Victoria Sutherland married a 19-year-old boy when she was 50. Only Naomi bore children—four of them. The youngest Sutherland sister, Mary, was mentally ill and died in the State Institution for the Insane in Buffalo in 1939.

Sadly, the Sutherlands’ personal archives were destroyed by a fire in their former mansion in 1938. A rumoured Hollywood film about their lives never happened—Dora Sutherland was killed by a car when three sisters went to Hollywood in the 1920s. A script has never surfaced. Ephemera from their products still exists, but little published matter, the most interesting of which is Clarence O. Lewis’ The Seven Sutherland Sisters, a 60-page pamphlet published by the Niagara County Historical Society.

But the Sutherlands had left numerous advertising photographs. If you know where to look, you can find vivid evidence of them. The more I looked, the more I felt for them. But they were American, and I am a European novelist. To inhabit the skins of long-haired women, I needed to situate them in a continental context. Their campaign of celebrity endorsement, rags, riches, rags was a parable—and so I decided I could draw on the dynamics of its medical history, but set it in the context of Victorian literature’s and the Pre-Raphaelite artists’ obsession with long hair—without minutely documenting the American ladies themselves.

So my seven sisters are Irish, and they end up in Venice, as all my stories do.

So19: Manticory, the novel’s first-person narrator, is both a memorable character in her own right and an engaging narrator of the sisters’ long and complex story—not an easy balance to strike. How did you develop her character and voice?

ML: I always hear a voice in my head before I start writing. It is not just a voice but a rhythm. The voice troubles me with its problems, which are, of course, related to the theme I’ve been researching. In this case, it was of course hair. Manticory’s voice came to me quite early on in my researches. There were no redheads among the Sutherland Sisters, so Manticory seemed to be an individual of my own making.

I am addicted to the Irish voice. The English language is a beautiful instrument on an Irish tongue. It is also possible to put that tongue on paper, so to speak. I spent much time in the philology department of the London Library, learning about the elements that build an authentically Irish voice. These include redundancy, the sense and acceptance of the ridiculous, exaggeration, pessimism, odd religion and constant interrogation.

Manticory’s voice grew from that research allied to the sound of her whispering in my ear as I wrote.

I then had to pitch her at the level of a grown woman who has lived a full life, for Manticory recounts the story from a point we reach only with the epilogue, by which time she is an educated woman of experience and hindsight. It’s always hard to trap the freshness of childhood in this kind of work. I tried to solve that by using as many conversations as I could, particularly between Swiney sisters and their childhood friend and enemy, the Eileen O’Reilly.

So19: What about the other sisters: Darcy, Berenice, Enda, Pertilly, Oona, and Idolatry? It can’t have been easy working with so many female characters who share the same background, yet each sister emerges vividly as her own woman, so to speak. Could you talk about how you shaped and distinguished their intertwining relationships and stories, not to mention their extraordinary names?

ML: I found the sisters’ names in Irish birth records, except Pertilly, which I invented, and Ida, which I embellished!

“Swiney” is a variation of the better known “Sweeney.” I wanted something earthy. My sisters are born in the ripe misery of the Famine, and live hand to mouth in a hovel, so the barnyard element of “Swiney” appealed to me.

My poor sisters become a singing and dancing troupe, The Swiney Godivas, letting down their hair for an avid public. Again, I liked the contrast between the low-bred Swiney and the aristocratic Lady Godiva. My sisters are raised by their fame to a level of celebrity that mimics their eponymous heroine’s. But they do not have the pedigree to support their fame, which is not underlaid with privilege or entitlement, so they come tumbling down, precipitously, when their human weaknesses are exposed.

The Sutherlands appear to have enjoyed fairly harmonious relations with one another and frequently chose to live together. They also had a brother. But I was interested in portraying a large set of sisters at war and peace amongst themselves—so I decided to create seven girls much divided in nature and temperament.

I come from a large family tribe myself—I am one of five. We were not without sibling rivalries and controversies, though none, I’m pleased to say, were as bitter as the hatred between the twins Berenice and Enda Swiney, and none was as arrant a bully as Darcy.

So19: The novel really captures the unabashedly boisterous energy of 19th-century commerce. How did you research this element of the story?

ML: I’ve long had an interest in quack medicine, which epitomizes all the boisterousness you describe. Without any restrictions on advertising, the quack doctors and pharmacists of the nineteenth century were also the epoch’s poets, blurring the distinction between theatre and science in the way they peddled their products. No image was too exotic for them; no metaphor too exaggerated. The Sutherland Sisters themselves claimed that their potions could make hair grow on bald heads.

Quack medicines have a certain communality of approach. They always promise the earth—perfection in a bottle. Perfection never comes cheap. Quack medicines also claim to deal with an enormous spectrum of ailments, from boils to bronchial weakness. This way, the odd user might even become better, though the odds were against it, given that the cheapest possible ingredients were usually deployed. Quack medics, however, frequently trumpeted the expensive foreign provenance of their key ingredients. This in part helped the victims swallow the cost.

So19: In your novel, hair becomes a proxy for all the different parts of women’s bodies that can be fetishized and exploited—as Manticory says at one point, “I am a thing with hair.” Its use and abuse seems much the same as the treatment of body parts like breasts today, just as the fame it brings the sisters foreshadows today’s cult of celebrity. Fair reading?

ML: An extremely fair reading, yes! More than fair—very apt.

Fetishism is often misunderstood in today’s society. In the early psychiatry of the late nineteenth century it was defined, by Havelock Ellis, as the process by which a man, for example, obsesses about one physical feature of a woman, for example, and loses sight of her as a whole human being.
Hair was heavily fetishized in the nineteenth century. The Pre-Raphaelites painted women with energetic, dramatic hair that almost seemed to burst out of the frame. Such hair could be read as signifier of female sexual desire and even aggression, according to recent scholarship.

Such hair was a revelation to Victorian men, accustomed to see hair unloosed only in the intimacy of the bedroom. Private collectors snapped up the “stunners” (that, surprisingly was the contemporary word for Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s female depictions). I have written about the sexualizing of hair in the 19th century here.

Bu the nineteenth century did not discover hair. Hair has always been of interest in art, in sociology, in history, in religion and in superstition.

It is the part of our body most easily altered for fashion. We cannot change our eyes, our noses or our figures so quickly or painlessly. Hair is the debatable land of our bodies, partly dead and partly alive, partly outside of us and partly inside us.

It is the only bit of our body that is treasured after death without horror or eccentricity. In Victorian times, the hair of the beloved deceased was kept not only as relic in the form of a beribboned lock but also used artistically in mourning brooches, woven and plucked into intricate tiny coils.

The dismantling of our ‘front of house’ is a traditional way of punishing people—collaborators have their hair shaved off. Tarred and feathered people also shaved. Hair is used for personality diagnosis—blondes are allegedly stupid, redheads fiery, brunettes sultry. Of all our secondary sexual characteristics, hair is the most visible. When it emerges on our bodies, or begins to whiten and shed, hair is the first signifier of sexual maturity, and then of age and encroaching death.

Human hairiness is our most visible link with other mammals, and so the land of beasts.

Anthropologists have recorded widespread beliefs in the sympathetic magic vested in hair and also in nail clippings. Cutting hair has often occasioned anxiety. In Venice, it was believed that witches could use the clippings of a baby’s hair to make it waste and die. In many cultures, the cutting of hair is supposed to lead to tempests and danger and sea. In my novel, I recorded an Irish superstition that cut hair needed to be poked into the crevices of church walls or into the thatches of cottages so that, on the Day of Judgment, the entire body, including every hair from the head, could be reassembled.

In terms of celebrity…yes, the hair of the girls draws the attention of the more unsavoury elements of the press. They are obliged to take desperate measures to defend themselves from one particular hack who seeks to assassinate their reputations.

There is also some reference to Henry James’ Aspern Papers, in which the aged former lover of a celebrated romantic poet is stalked by an ambitious writer, for I also wanted to write a parable of one of the key moral debates of our own time: where does freedom of the press cross over into criminal intrusion, character assassination and simple venality at the expense of the prey? What are the just deserts of journalists, who re-construe, rewrite and reshape the truth for profit instead of honestly recording it?

So19: The novel evokes three such different 19th-century settings: rural Ireland, Dublin, and Venice, which you’ve written compellingly about before as well. Could you talk a little about your appreciation for Venice in general, and its role in this novel in particular?

ML: Venice is part of my life and all my stories. I might even go as far to argue that she is the font of all stories in general! Venice is the crossroads and crucible of anything that ever happened in Western civilization. When you want to know what happened in art, history, medicine, you can go to Venice and find that it happened there first.

This is not the first time I have written about 19th century Venice. My children’s historical fantasy, Talina in the Tower, is set in 1867.

It is commercially difficult to write about the 19th century up until 1866, when Venice was liberated from an Austrian domination of sixty years. My publishers have told me that the German market would be easily offended by depictions of the generally anti-Teutonic feelings of the Venetians, which I would need to express faithfully even as a background to my historical fantasies for children. And Germans are good publishers and big readers so I’ve had to stay away from that time, even with my adult fiction. So the Swineys do not arrive in Venice until after the liberation.

I spend much of my time in Venice, so I don’t need to acclimatize myself to writing about her. I’ve also published nine novels set there now. Each century and each novel, of course, delivers a new Venice to me. Although it looks preserved in stone, the city has changed greatly over the years. The first buildings were in wood. At the time of my novel, The Floating Book—1470 —hardly any of the palaces on the Grand Canal existed. Subsequent fashions in architecture changed the windows on the water from Byzantine to Gothic to Renaissance—from stilted arches, to Arabian-looking trefoils to the neo-classical triangles and semi-circles so derided by John Ruskin because they ignored both the glorious creativity of nature and the nobility of the artisan, seeming to show man’s geometry as more perfect than God’s.

I set the Swiney scenes in the Palazzo Coccina Tiepolo Papadopoli, and did my research there just before it closed up for a massive restoration. It reopened last year as the Aman Hotel, and George Clooney just did me the honour of choosing it for his wedding festivities.

So19:  Finally, can you tell us anything about what you’re working on now?

ML: I am working on two historical novels for young adults, both, of course, set in Venice. One takes place in 1737 and the other about thirty years later. This means that I am interested in the trade in fake saintly relics, in child slavery, in the trade of exotic goods between Arabia and Venice, and the late childhood of one Giacomo Casanova, who is a character in The Hotel of What You Want.

Photograph of the Seven Sutherland Sisters; photograph in the public domain

Photograph of the Sutherland Sisters' Hair Grower, courtesy of the Travel Channel's Mysteries at the Museum