Guest post – Jeanette Ng on the inspirations for “Under The Pendulum Sun”.

Meeting Jeanette at Nerd East in Durham, I found her great company and really interesting to talk to. Accordingly, I kept an eye out for her debut novel, now released. In Under the Pendulum Sun, Catherine Helstone’s brother, Laon, has disappeared in Arcadia, legendary land of the magical fae. Desperate for news of him, she makes the perilous journey, but once there, she finds herself alone and isolated in the sinister house of Gethsemane. At last there comes news: her beloved brother is riding to be reunited with her soon – but the Queen of the Fae and her insane court are hard on his heels.

One thing that particularly interested me about this premise was this depiction of Faerie alongside Victorian England, since that was the very era when fairies were denatured from Shakespeare’s eerie menace to sickly-sweet little things dressed as flowers. So, I asked, what prompted her to write a book set in that period?


What Drew Jeannette to the Victorian Era

Under the Pendulum Sun began very Victorian. I had picked up a Victorian missionary manual from the university library and as we started reading it in my living room. Having no television, our evening entertainment occasionally involved reading things aloud to each other and discussing the texts afterwards. It was from those discussions that I had thoughts of “what if they met beings actually as alien and as strange as they describe in these books?”

I had then toyed with basing it in other eras of missionary work. It was at the ruins of St Paul in Macau that I thought of the conviction of their early missionaries and martyrs. They set sail without sparing a single moment and it was only after they arrived that they wrote to the pope to ask for “permission”. I also read about the lonely Bishop of Beijing and Kublai Khan’s request of a hundred priests[1] to come to teach Christianity to his empire. In the end, only two friars braved the journey and even then, they did not finish it. I was also very familiar with the rapid conversion urged on by apocalyptic fears around the year 1000 in Northern Europe. There are undoubtedly stories there still, waiting to be told.

But none of it felt quite right, for all that I was more familiar with the historical eras. I wrote a great many false starts and I kept coming back to the passages that first inspired the project. I wanted to use them and recontextualise their words and with that I was locked in. There is also something very pleasing about it being Victorians meeting horrid fae since it is also the same era that is largely responsible for popularising very twee and tiny fairies.

I chose the year 1847 because it was the year Jane Eyre was published [2] and I was drawing so very much from the life and work of the Brontës. For all that Jane did not go with St John Rivers to India, Charlotte Brontë clearly greatly admired the work of a missionary. She wrote a poem titled The Missionary, which was one of the axed chapter epigraphs:

“Though such blood-drops should fall from me

As fell in old Gethsemane,

Welcome the anguish, so it gave

More strength to work≠more skill to save.”

Thinking back, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were some of first “adult” novels I read. I still remember carrying around Jane Eyre with an absolutely massive dictionary, looking up all the words I didn’t know in it. And there were very many. My little notebook of vocabulary was absolutely full by the end[3].

That memory is what gave birth to the dedication of Under the Pendulum Sun. I grew up reading the Brontës and they remain to me, and are still to many, part of that esteemed Western Canon. I see literature as a culture conversing with itself, rewriting and revisiting stories of the past. I’ve loved Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Jasper Fforde’s Eyre Affair, to name but a few of the Brontës’ literary descendants. I wanted Under the Pendulum Sun to be, on some level, part of that pantheon. It is me placing my own apocrypha among the stories of my childhood, a metaphor that is itself a theme within the text itself.

My approach to writing the half-real owes also quite a lot to Jorge Luis Borges, whose literary forgeries made a deep mark on my teenage mind. I adored his reviews of nonexistent books, translations of fictional texts and mostly true biographies of real historical people. He would use facts and details of our world that are just absurd enough to be false (or at least seem false) as a bridge into the fantastical. Having myself a magpie mind that loves historical trivia, they all became natural hooks to pull me into the story.

Which all makes my approach a little different from steampunk, a genre that has now come to be synonymous with Victorian fantasy. Under the Pendulum Sun has been tagged as such in its brief life and I have no real objection to such labelling, people use these words to help them navigate the wilds of fiction. Being of a rather academic background, I do see the driving impulse of steampunk being that so-called Victorian optimism at the future of technology. It is where steam power provides the sense wonder instead of magic. All of which is rather absent from Under the Pendulum Sun.

I am, of course, not without precedents. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a beautiful novel with strange fae written in a distinctly Victorian voice. Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to The Crown also gloriously deals with faeries and themes of colonialism, but in dramatically different fashion to myself. Mary Robinette Kowel’s Shades of Milk and Honey rather famously uses only words Jane Austen herself used to tell a restrained tale of domestic Regency magic. Marie Brennan’s Natural History of Dragons is set in secondary world but has both a very Victorian voice and a genteel lady explorer. All of which I sincerely and absolutely recommend.

[1] I always loved this story as it seems to highlight how the Great Khan simply thought on a whole different scale to the leaders in Europe.

[2] It became a sort of memory aid for me. I’d forget when my book was set and would look up when Jane Eyre was published. For a historian, I am really appallingly bad at dates.

[3] I never did read another book that way, looking up words as I go. I was taught the magical trick of just ignoring it and letting myself be pulled in by the story.

Jeannette Ng is originally from Hong Kong but now lives in Durham, UK. Her MA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies fed into an interest in medieval and missionary theology, which in turn spawned her love for writing gothic fantasy with a theological twist. She runs live roleplay games and is active within the costuming community, running a popular blog.

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