GUEST POST: Disability in the 18th Century: An interview with Lucy May Lennox, author of The Adventures of Tom Finch, Gentleman

Today I'm pleased to bring you news of a recently published novel, The Adventures of Tom Finch, Gentleman, and a guest post in the form of an interview with Lucy May Lennox. I hope you enjoy reading what inspired the author to create her hero as an 18th century blind man as much as I did.

Publication Date: November 12, 2019
Paperback & ebook
Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Synopsis

London, 1735. Covent Garden offers a world of pleasures and diversions, even for a blind man. Tom Finch, composer of broadsides and assistant conductor in the nearby opera houses, considers himself the luckiest of men, as he has both education and freedom to do as he pleases. Blindness is to him merely an inconvenience, and no impediment to his favored pastimes: playing music and lushing it in a public house in the company of Jem Castleton, his crony and amanuensis. And of course chasing after women…

Tess Turnbridge, a soprano with a burning ambition to become an opera star, finds her first leading role in a second-rate theater with an unusual conductor, so handsome despite his blindness. Tom Finch has no place in her career plans, yet she finds she can’t stop thinking about him…

Sally Salisbury, a tough, flash talking whore and part-time thief. Tom is hopelessly in love with her, despite all warnings that she will be the cause of his ruination…

Join Tom for a picaresque romp through high and low Georgian society among rakes, rovers, thieving whores and demi-reps, highway robbers, bigamists, and duelists, bisexual opera divas, castrati, mollies, and cross-dressers, lecherous aristocrats, and headstrong ladies in this meticulously researched, witty and lively tale in the tradition of Tom Jones and Vanity Fair.

Guest Post - Interview

Q: Our hero, Tom Finch, is unabashedly rakish and delightfully adventurous: he seduces, duels, and gets mixed up in an alarming/thrilling number of midnight voyages and altercations. At the same time, there are passages in the book that make it clear that because he is blind, Tom’s independence and high spirits depend on a tight network of support from friends and family. When you wrote Tom, how did you think about striking a balance between cultivating a gallant, self-assured protagonist, and showing the reality of living with physical limitations in a society that’s not set up to support them?

A: Tom lives independently because he has people helping him–not just friends and family, but also servants, an important part of eighteenth century life. I aimed for him to be well-off enough to be educated and live comfortably, but not so rich that his every need is met immediately, which would be boring. In many ways, I designed Tom’s character to counter the stereotypes I was seeing in romance novels, where disability is often used as an engine for angst. It didn’t match up to the real experiences of people I have known, who are after all just people doing the best they can with the circumstances they’ve been dealt. As Tom’s uncle says, “What can’t be cured has to be endured.” This was especially true before modern medicine and support services. If you look at the evidence of real lives, people were just figuring things out for themselves in very idiosyncratic ways.

Of course, the more money you had, the easier it was to create the support you needed. Unfortunately, the reality was that most people with disabilities were dependent on begging or charity. But there were some exceptions, such as Matthias Buchinger (1674-1740) who was born without hands or feet but was an accomplished calligrapher, musician and marksman.

Q: To shape Tom’s exploits and habits (his ability to navigate by echolocation with a tapping cane, for example), you did research on real blind men of the period who lived colorful, striving lives. This is a fascinating part of history, and a sadly neglected one. Can you share with us some of your favorite anecdotes about these historical figures?

A: I borrowed Tom’s method of echolocation from travel writer James Holman (1786-1857). This is an example of people just figuring things out for themselves—Holman’s technique of banging his heavy wooden walking stick on the ground to listen for echoes is not at all how blind people today are taught to use canes (which nowadays are hollow aluminum). But he made it work.

While Holman was a celebrity in his time, today John Fielding (1721-1780) is probably the most well-known blind man of the eighteenth century. With his brother, Henry Fielding, he founded the Bow Street Runners, London’s first police force, and revolutionized the system of criminal justice. He recognized the voice of every person who came through his court, and he could pinpoint the origin of any accent. His career is evidence that a blind man could excel in Georgian society, but I felt he was almost too famous to use as a model or as a character. There have already been several very enjoyable novels and a TV show about him, and I didn’t want to rehash what those have already covered.

The two main models I ended up using for Tom were both composers: John Stanley (1712-1786) and Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738). Stanley played the organ and conducted several oratorios for Handel. He had a remarkable memory: he could learn an entire oratorio after hearing it only once. Carolan was an Irish harper and composer, who like many blind men at the time in Ireland earned his living by traveling from house to house, performing and composing music in praise of his hosts. He was a prodigious drinker and womanizer, and his tunes in praise of alcohol and women are still performed today. Some of Tom’s more libertine habits come from him. I also borrowed an incident from Carolan’s life in the plot, in which he recognizes a woman when he holds her hand to help her into a boat.

Q: There's a larger, historical sense of vulnerability to Tom's status. Your afterword includes a chilling note that by the next century, “institutionalization became the norm for people with disabilities.” How much was your choice of setting for this story informed by the need to find a historical moment where society allowed people with disabilities to live independently?

A: I didn’t make a conscious choice, but after I started writing, I realized that all the models I used of accomplished blind men lived in the eighteenth century, and this was not a coincidence. By the nineteenth century, blind people were being institutionalized supposedly for their own good, but the result was to limit their capabilities. In many ways, circumstances were better when people were left to their own devices to figure things out, compared to the “help” imposed by well-meaning able-bodied people in the nineteenth century.

For example, today we think of Braille as an amazing invention, but for decades its use was suppressed by sighted educators in favor of systems that were more similar to printed letters. Life in the Georgian era was extremely risky, without any safety net for all kinds of marginalized people, including people with disabilities – yet there was a bit more freedom and social mobility compared to the nineteenth century.

Q: The women in Tom Finch’s life are wonderfully pugnacious and self-driven, but there’s a pressing sense that their lives may be even more vulnerable than Tom’s. Despite the book’s light-hearted tone, unwanted pregnancy, abusive husbands, and the devastating effects of social scandal are all in evidence. How deliberately did you think about exploring the contrast between social limitations on women, and on people with disabilities? And how do you think that that contrast shapes Tom and Tess’s relationship in particular?

A: Yes, I did want to reflect on how our position in society is not just shaped by one dimension, like gender, but by multiple dimensions together. Tom has a serious disability, but he’s still a man. Part of his journey to a more mature, settled life is recognizing how the women around him have lives that are more precarious than he realizes.

Thinking about Tess and Tom’s relationship more broadly, I really wanted to show a romantic relationship between equals, which would have been very unusual for that era. But it did sometimes happen, especially for people living unconventional lives, like actresses. I also wanted to depict a blind man as a romantic lead—when you look at the lives of the men mentioned above, they were all married, some of them multiple times. Buchinger and Carolan in particular had reputations as being very charismatic and ahem, popular with the ladies. To put it in modern terms, they were total players.

Questions written by Rowan Mai.


The Adventures of Tom Finch, Gentleman is available from Amazon

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