Mina Scarletti and the murky world of Victorian mediums
The act of writing a book is a challenge to the writer, but the writer also sets challenges for her characters. Will the detective solve the mystery? Will he or she even survive the experience unharmed and unchanged? I am not quite sure why, but I tend to set huge challenges for my main characters. Any female in Victorian society will be hampered by the restrictions placed on her gender: a set of expectations she may not be comfortable with, and a perception of her abilities that might be a gross underestimate. In addition to this, Mina Scarletti is small and frail. She suffers from scoliosis, a distortion of the spine that hampers her breathing, tilts her body and affects her movement. I created Mina having been inspired by two people with similar conditions – a lady I knew as a child, and the unfortunate Fanny Maclean who was murdered by a rogue in 1879 after he had romanced her and then induced her to sign over her property to him.
A disabled female with property was in a difficult and vulnerable position in the Victorian marriage market. I wanted to create a woman whose character was strong enough for her to rise above every apparent disadvantage. Mina has been advised that marriage and motherhood, then the approved roles considered to be the natural ambition of every woman, are too dangerous for her, but she has no truck with self-pity. Instead, she resolves that she is free to do whatever else she might choose.
Mina has a vivid imagination and writes stories about ghosts and demons, but she also has a strong idea of what might be true and what should be regarded with scepticism. The 1870s when these books are set were a rich and rewarding time for spirit mediums. Their customers, not satisfied with simple rappings and tilting tables, wanted something more exciting – actual visible ghosts. There were skilled conjurors who, insisting that darkness was essential for the spirits to appear, easily invoked glowing hands and faces, and even full-body manifestations. These apparitions, clothed in draperies impregnated with oil of phosphorus, walked about in darkened seance rooms, sometimes even shaking hands with the sitters or sitting down to take tea with them. At the time, few investigations were being carried out; the Society for Psychical Research was not formed until 1882. The rare investigators were at a disadvantage; hampered by darkness, and with no means of recording events. Scientists were not aware of what could be achieved by conjuring, and their curiosity often stemmed from a preconceived belief in the unexplained phenomena. Seances were an entertainment, an adventure for the curious and offered solace for the bereaved, but there was also a harsher, criminal side. It is this world that tiny frail Mina Scarletti will confront with all the courage at her disposal.
In the first book in the series, Mr Scarletti’s Ghost, Mina becomes aware that there are mediums who use their skills to extort large sums of money from their clients and she is concerned that her mother might become a victim. So begins her new career of investigating potential frauds, and she begins to acquire a local reputation.
My books are based in Brighton, a popular health resort with beautiful sunshine, sea bathing and vapour baths, a place where invalids come for treatment and relaxation, and where crooked mediums will seek out their vulnerable clients. Mina is not alone in her endeavours: she has wise and kindly Dr Hamid, the proprietor of a medicated bathhouse, to advise her; her mercurial brother Richard, who will do any foolhardy thing that no one else would dare attempt; and Richard’s mistress, Nellie, a former conjuror’s assistant who knows all the tricks, and has a few of her own.
The second book, The Royal Ghost, is centred around Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, which in the 1870s was a fashionable location for entertainment. Strange and scandalous occurrences have been reported, and are the talk of the town. Mina cannot resist trying to solve the puzzle. Somehow, Dr Livingstone, a Crimean War hero and a chess automaton are all crucial to the plot. Mina makes a new friend but also a very powerful enemy.
In the third book, An Unquiet Ghost, Mina is told of an unsolved murder that occurred twenty years ago. Only the dead man knows who killed him, but can a medium be found who can provide the answer and save a family from pain? Mina visits Mr Castlehouse who claims to produce spirit messages on slates, and the ethereal Miss Brendel, whose visions conceal some worrying secrets. There are shocking truths to be uncovered before Mina solves the mystery.
In her latest adventure, The Ghost of Hollow House, Mina is faced with a fresh challenge. A newly married couple of her acquaintance are living in a Sussex mansion not far from Brighton and have experienced what they believe might be hauntings which have unsettled the maidservants. They appeal to Mina for help, and she sets off accompanied by Dr Hamid and Nellie, for what promises to be an amusing and entertaining few days. Unlike Mina’s previous adventures there is no one present who claims to be a medium, and no seances have been held. With the unexpected arrival of her arch enemy, who decides to take over the investigation, what had been simply a disquieting situation rapidly descends into a terrifying chaos, a chaos in which everyone finds themselves trapped. A creepy house, a crumbling church, an old curse, a dark past, the ghost of a white lady, skeletons, spiders, and things that go creak in the night – these, believe it or not, are actually the least of Mina’s worries. This book also posed a special challenge for me which led to an unusual solution. I can’t describe it without revealing the plot, but it would be interesting to know if readers think I managed to pull it off!
I am currently writing book 5, in which Mina has to meet her ultimate adversary. Can Mina Scarletti cheat death?
Linda Stratmann is fascinated by true crime, and by all things Victorian. She is the author of the Frances Doughty Mysteries as well as the Mina Scarletti books. Find out more about her here.