Friday, May 18, 2007

"The Conjurer"

Cordelia Frances Biddle is the author of The Conjurer, the debut novel in her Martha Beale series.

She applied the "page 69 test" to her novel and reported the following:
Page 69 of The Conjurer exposes the difficult position of women in early-Victorian society, and is representative of only one aspect of the book - albeit an important one. As my protagonist, Martha Beale, faces the seemingly insurmountable hurdle of prevailing against the machinations of her father's confidential secretary, the socialite Emily Durand, a person of rank within her illustrious circle, also begins to feel the constraints of her accepted role.

These two characters' lives are interwoven with many others representative of the period: the escaped convict Josiah, the shady financier Rosegger, the well-born women who manage an orphanage, Thomas Kelman who serves as a quasi-assistant to the city's mayor and has been assigned to investigate the disappearance of Martha's father, even the famed conjurer of the title, Eusapio Paladino. None of these people appear on page 69, however, so a reader beginning at that page might imagine he or she had wandered into a tale about manners and mores during the 1840s.

Research into the mid-1800's was vital for the creation of The Conjurer. It's imperative for me to get inside each character's skin, to know not only their emotional life but also the external forces that make for rich reading: the feel of fabric, the taste of the food, the smells on the streets, spoken or unspoken political innuendo, as well as the colliding worlds of the affluent and most impoverished.

As history, The Conjurer is true to fact. The period was one of great foment; the city, as yet unconsolidated, was made up of disparate boroughs and townships which often allowed criminals to escape prosecution simply by crossing a street. Conjuring or mesmerism or somnabulism, as it was variously called, was a vogue sweeping the nation; and Philadelphia, then hailed as "the Athens of America," eagerly embraced the practice.

Interestingly, page 69 shows little of the plight of the poor which I've exposed in the novel, nor does it reveal Martha's eventual transformation into a person of strength and determination - or the relationship between her and Kelman. But that requires an additional 234 pages of reading.
Visit Cordelia Frances Biddle's website and read an excerpt from The Conjurer.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue