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Penny Richards: Living in Defiance of the Easy, “Normal Path” #LadiesinDefiance


an untimely frost by penny richards

Lilly Long, the heroine of my new Lilly Long Mystery series for Kensington Publishing, is a woman ahead of her time. In an era where women were looked upon as a means of getting an heir, someone to fetch and do for their men folk, who were expected to keep any opinions they might have to themselves and had few freedoms or rights, Lilly blatantly defies the mores and conventions of the 1880’s.

As we all realize, defiance comes in many forms. Why does a young girl defy her parents and run away with the man she loves? Why choose an occupation known to bring only heartache and shame? Why flaunt society by doing something as forward-thinking as going into trade when the norm demanded women to stay at home and raise children? Why go on stage? Why go to a battlefield to tend the wounds of soldiers or become a prostitute, or hundreds of other choices made daily? What makes a woman choose a different, sometimes unacceptable path for their lives? Are they born with a bold and courageous spirit, are they too timid to speak up for themselves, or does circumstance leave them little choice?

Born the illegitimate daughter to a traveling actress, my character “heard” her mother being murdered by a lover who had played her the fool by promising to leave his wealthy wife. Though she doesn’t realize it, the incident scars Lilly in more ways than she is aware of.

When Sir Pierce Wainwright, the theater troupe’s manager, takes her under his wing, she has little choice but to follow her mother’s footsteps onto the stage, not the best vocation for any woman who wanted to be considered decent. Like the stars of today, some few actresses like Lillian Russell, Mary Anderson and Sarah Bernhardt were looked upon in favor by their fans, but in general women performers carried the stigma of being little more than prostitutes. In actuality, women who “trod the boards” had a more equal footing with men who shared their profession than women who chose a more conventional path, receiving equal treatment and pay for their work.

Fearful of becoming like her mother, Lilly “saves” herself for marriage to Timothy Warner who repays her love and innocence by roughing up her dearest friend and stealing Lilly’s life savings. Does Lilly sigh and moan and take to bed with a megrim? Hardly. Despite the many dangers of a dark Chicago night and suffering from a slight head injury, she dons her cloak and the persona of her latest stage character, the hard-headed Pricilla Dunlap, and heads for Timothy’s favorite hangout, McGregor’s Tavern, determined to get her money.

For a decent woman to even enter such an establishment was unthinkable, and those who did were supposed to use a back door. Not Lilly. She marches through the front door, dismissing the bouncer with a stern look and confronts the owner concerning the whereabouts of her missing husband. When she learns that Tim is not only a thief and scoundrel who owes money to everyone and that he has defiled their marriage bed, she does the unimaginable: she files for a divorce, something few “decent” women would have the courage to do.

Then, while recovering from her injury, spurred on by her anger and her hurt, Lilly sees an interesting newspaper advertisement and chooses another audacious course. Considering how her mother’s and her own pasts have influenced her life and understanding that many naïve, inexperienced women are taken advantage of by unscrupulous men, she decides to leave all that is familiar and embark on a new and very different life path. In a move both rash and bold, she sets up an interview with the prestigious Pinkerton National Detective Agency and finagles her way into a job, one where she can use her acting skills to help other wronged women find justice.

Lilly’s new role will require her to make many choices that are not in keeping with an acceptable way of life for women of her time period, yet it is women like Lilly, women with a mission, women with intelligence and grit and determination who paved the way for changes that benefit women…actually everyone, today. Think of the many women who have chosen unusual, hard, paths to make the world a better place. Often they reap sorrow, humiliation and even loathing. Is it really defiance that drives them, an unusual amount of courage, moral outrage, or maybe just the experiences of life? I’m a firm believer it’s all of the above. Things happen; we react. How, depends on our personalities and our upbringing. Defiance is the choice of many, and thank goodness it is.

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On Twitter: @pennyRwrites

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