Thursday, December 29, 2011

Writing Another Gender, Another Time

by Gary Inbinder

Thanks for inviting me to post on your blog. My novel, The Flower to the Painter, explores some major themes, including gender bias and the effect of the marketplace on culture within the context of what I believe is an engaging and compelling read, especially for those intrigued by the late Victorian period. Here’s a brief synopsis:

Marcia Brownlow, a young, unemployed American governess in late nineteenth century Italy, masquerades as a man to advance her career. She adopts the persona of her dead brother Mark and becomes the protégée of Arthur Wolcott, a famous American expatriate author who discovers Marcia’s artistic talent. Wolcott introduces his protégée to wealthy art patrons in Florence, Venice, Paris,
and London, including three women who, deceived as to Marcia’s sex, fall in love with the captivating artist.

Marcia emulates her idol, the great English landscape artist William Turner. As she develops her skills, James Whistler, John Singer Sargent, and Sir Frederic Leighton, the leader of the London art establishment, praise her paintings of Florence and Venice. However, on the eve of her greatest triumph, Marcia’s first love returns to threaten her with exposure and scandal.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Victorians, and have read about them extensively in literature of the period, Historical Fiction, and non-fiction. I was most influenced and inspired by the novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton, but I also considered the works of earlier writers for character and atmosphere. For example, some might detect a bit of Thackeray’s Becky Sharpe in my protagonist, Marcia Brownlow.

The Merchant Ivory films of period classics and BBC Masterpiece Theatre productions were an important resource as well. They’re great for visualizing scenes of the period—interiors, exteriors, dress and manners. Nevertheless, I still had to research quite a bit in reference books, especially to get enough detail on those painters, like Sir Frederick Leighton, who are not so well known today. I also had to pay a good deal of attention to period dialogue to get Marcia’s voice right.

It’s a challenge for a man of any era to write from the perspective of a woman, and even more so from the point of view of a woman from a much different time and place. So I took some risks writing this novel. Despite our differences, I could empathize with my protagonist. Many creative people feel marginalized, often to the point of alienation. Artists, writers, poets, actors, etc. tend to be “different” and that difference creates empathy with others similarly marginalized. Moreover, alienation can be exacerbated by bias based on gender and sexual orientation.

I’m attracted to stories told by outsiders looking in, people who hide behind masks to enter a world that might not otherwise be open to them. I tried to imagine what it would have been like to be a young woman artist in a male dominated culture. I’ve given some thought to role reversal classics, like Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper where the eponymous characters trade places, and If I Were King in which the vagabond poet Francois Villon becomes “King for a Day.” There are also “Gender-Benders” like Victor/Victoria, Tootsie and Myra Breckenridge. And I recall social dramas like Gentleman’s Agreement, where a journalist posed as a Jew to investigate anti-Semitism in post WWII America, and Black Like Me, where another journalist posed as an African American to experience race prejudice in the segregated south.

In preparation for telling Marcia’s story, I’ve read several biographies of artists of the period. I’ve also taken Art and Art History courses in college, and I’m a lifelong museum addict. Although it’s quite a challenge for a man to write convincingly from the female perspective, I’ve read two books where it’s been done successfully: Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha and Junichiro Tanizaki’s Quicksand. And I’ll also mention Alyson Richman’s historical novel, The Mask Carver’s Son, which she wrote from the perspective of a Gay male Japanese artist of the Meiji era (1867-1912).

I believe my novel will appeal to readers of Historical Fiction that focuses on the late nineteenth century, and especially to those who like art related themes and are fans of writers like Stephanie Cowell, Susan Vreeland and Tracy Chevalier. Moreover, the novel also deals with themes related to gender identity and sexual sublimation, which I believe adds complexity and interesting nuances to the characters, the narrative and the story-line.

By the way, I’ve received compliments and questions about the cover art. The painting is, “A Morning Walk,” by John Singer Sargent. It’s a portrait of the artist’s younger sister, Mrs. Violet Ormond. I’ve included a copy of the painting and a portrait of a Venetian lady by Frederic Leighton that readers of The Flower to the Painter might associate with a completely fictional major character, Princess Albertini.

Thanks again for inviting me to your blog, which I might add is itself a great resource for Historical Fiction aficionados.


  1. What an interesting scenario for a plot for a novel. I really look forward to reading this. The artwork is simply delicious. As an aside, I lived in Paris for many years and spent hours and hours drooling over the amazing artwork in the museums. I felt like it was an honor to simply be allowed to view these treasures. Thank you for sharing a synopsis of this novel and I am certainly putting it at the top of my wish list!

  2. Thanks Connie! You might enjoy comparing the historical scenes of the 1870s Parisian art world (The Louvre, Montmartre, The 1877 Impressionist Exhibition) to your own experiences.


  3. I am fascinated by the story premise and enjoyed having my curiosity answered about what it is like to write from an opposite gender perspective. Thanks for the post!

  4. Thanks for your interest! Writing from an opposite gender perspective in first person is certainly a challenge.

  5. Gary, this is a fascinating post. A man can write about life from a woman's standpoint, but all things being equal, the task is more challenging. As a student of Victorian literature and life myself (I have a Ph.D. in English and took grad courses in Victorian literature), I appreciate the amount of research you've done. The premise of your novel also sounds fascinating, and need I mention, it would have been hard to surpass Sargent's wonderful painting for the cover.

  6. Thanks, John! Your comments are much appreciated.



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