Ever since my debut novel The Eighth Circle of Hell was published in October 2012, I’ve been continually asked how I came to write about such a grim subject matter as 19th Century child sexual abuse. It’s an interesting story so I thought I’d write a blog post about it.
Around six years or so ago, there were a number of difficult elements in my personal life; severe illness of close family members, hardship and death. I began creative writing purely as a catharsis to these and as a form of escapism.
One day, I was visiting my father in the care home where he lived when one of the other residents, an elderly lady who was also in the end-stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, suddenly cried out, begging some uncle to stop, screaming that he was hurting her. This particular lady was in her early eighties and it made me begin to imagine what sort of horrors she must be reliving. That very soon sparked the idea behind The Eighth Circle of Hell.
Another conversation which fed into the storyline was one I had with the senior nurse at the time. He explained that my father (who was by then incontinent) was violently resisting intervention by the nurses to bath him. That was hardly surprising, he told me, since my father couldn’t remember who the nurses were from one hour to the next. To his mind, several burly men were suddenly grabbing him and forcibly removing his clothes. No wonder he fought back!
The plot for the novel that began to form in my mind needed to predate dementia drugs or even modern mental health services, and living in Harrogate – essentially a Victorian town – I decided to set it in the 19th Century.
Which is when I happened to stumble across the Defloration Mania.
The Defloration Mania was a period during the Victorian age when adolescent, mainly virgin girls were bought, duped, kidnapped, or otherwise procured for rich, so-called gentlemen to rape. It was a time of soundproofed rooms, illicit sedatives and straps and the rape was carried out on an almost industrial scale. The pioneering journalist WT Stead eventually exposed it in 1885 in a series of shocking articles entitled The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.
The articles outraged a Victorian public and it outraged me, especially as I remembered the terror in the old lady’s screams. It was this anger that seemed to crystallise onto my laptop screen as the manuscript for The Eighth Circle of Hell.
Everything I describe in the plot, from the horrific baby farming to the Annexe, from the procuresses to the Gentlemen’s entertainment was real and typical to the Mania.
The most amazing thing about the period was that despite the 1885 scandal and the riots that Stead’s articles ignited, virtually no one these days, even in England, has heard of it. The government of the day hurriedly raised the age of consent for girls from 13 to 16 years and the whole thing died away – in the public’s consciousness at least.
The ongoing scandal over celebrity child abuse in Britain today demonstrates clearly that outside that consciousness, it continues even today.