I’m rubbish at breaking the rules.
My aunt says that when I was seven, she found me loitering at the corner of my street, looking puffy-faced and cross. She asked me what was up.
‘I’m running away from home!’ I said.
‘Oh,’ she said mildly, being all Canadian about it. ‘Well, you haven’t got very far.’
‘I know…’ I scuffed my shoe on the pavement. ‘I’m not allowed to cross the road by myself.’
Nine years on, I wasn’t having any teenage rebellions. My actual Mum was my head of sixth form.
(I know. It explains a lot.)
So it surprises me more than anyone that I’m writing the story of a girl who’s an out-and-out lawbreaker. Someone who refuses to be bound by the rules that would keep her where she belongs: powerless.
I am fascinated by what people do when the rules aren’t fair. When they are broken down. When they exist only to break you.
In the late 1700s, for many people, life in and around London was tough. Violence was a fact of life. Crime was widespread, and theft a daily reality. There was no police force as we’d know it today, and to find and convict offenders was often difficult. The answer of those in charge was to make punishment as crushing as possible. Crowds would watch people hung, whipped, or stood in the pillory to be pelted with stones and shit. The message was clear. Break the law, and we’ll break you.
In law, as in wider society, women had their very own iron cage of rules. Once she was married, everything a woman owned became the legal property of her husband. If a wife killed her husband, it was called ‘petty treason’, and considered worse than murder, because he was her superior. It had a special punishment of being burned at the stake, rather than the usual hanging.
In this unruly world, harsh punishment and wild lawlessness writhe and coil around each other like fighting snakes. It’s against all this that my character Red has to fight. She has to trample over the rules, to carve out a life that’s hers, when everyone else wants to use those rules to tear her down.
I’m fighting with her. Rules are rules. But they aren’t always right.