Many years ago, a photocopy quietly made the rounds among editors’ assistants in London: Jeanette Winterson’s enraged response to a questionnaire sent to her by some clueless publisher of a directory of historical novelists. In fat black felt tip angled across the printed form, Winterson let rip: she wrote experimental fiction, not historical novels–not, I think she put it, “crap.” It was the kind of unhinged overreaction that makes you change seats on the train. But you knew what Winterson meant. This was long before Hilary Mantel earned her two Bookers. With a few exceptions, like Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, the postwar historical novel in English was the meat-and-two-veg of popular literature: enjoyable, sometimes skillfully-made, but artistically conventional. Heavy, too. You could finish your Michener then bludgeon your neighbor with it. The genre’s appeal was (and still is, for the most part) in time travel: accurate period details, the romance of the past. “I hated historical novels with fluttering cloaks,” Winterson said elsewhere.
Irish writer Emma Donoghue’s beguiling eighth novel, Frog Music, is a hybrid of those carefully researched entertainments and experiments like Gravity’s Rainbow that are set in the past but not about it. A French circus bareback rider, Blanche Beunon, working in San Francisco in the 1870s as a burlesque dancer and high-priced prostitute, brings home to Chinatown a new friend: the cross-dressing, straight-talking Jenny Bonnet. The little household—which includes Arthur Deneve, Blanche’s pimp and former circus partner, and Ernest Girard, Arthur’s over-attached best friend—is unsettled by her visit. Jenny’s murder a month later is the central mystery in Frog Music and its chief historical fact, the spot where Donoghue, author of Room, has pinned down the slippery fabric of her narrative.
As she explains in an afterword, this unsolved crime has been engaging writers and academics for years. The short version from the historical record is that a memorable street character named something like Jenny Bonnet, a frog-catcher for the restaurant trade—long known to the police for cross-dressing and vagrancy—was lying in bed in a cheap boardinghouse on the outskirts of the city when someone shot her dead through the window. Her friend Blanche only suffered a grazed cheek. Testimony from Jenny’s inquest survives in newspaper reports of the period, as does the slow, clumsy progress of the police detectives. While even Jenny’s name is uncertain, her penchant for men’s clothes was widely reported.
In Frog Music, the story is Blanche’s. No one will care more about her friend’s death than she does, or be better able to tease through the domestic dramas behind it. Blanche was running from Arthur when the murder occurred, and she has to keep running now. She suspects the bullet was intended for her.
The post-Gold Rush setting of the novel feels real and immediate—the city’s wild nightlife; immigrants’ songs and stories; the casual bigotry always ready to spark into violence. The boom is gone, leaving a dangerous residue of risk-taking. A baby is one risk that an unmarried showgirl can’t reasonably take. On that first visit to Blanche’s apartment, Jenny spots a photo in Blanche’s bedroom, among a clutter of make-up and jewelry: “Who’s the baby?” It’s P’tit, Blanche and Arthur’s son, who is being “nursed out, on a farm, for his health.” Jenny asks what’s wrong with him, what kind of farm, how often Blanche visited. “What a talent this one has for putting her nose in other people’s business,” Blanche reflects. “And her finger on sore points.” It doesn’t take much—just these few questions from someone new—to awaken Blanche’s latent maternal instincts. Finding P’tit (at a filthy baby farm in the city) and bringing him home threatens her relationship with Arthur. It’s the undeniable—in this case, smelly, malnourished, weak, unresponsive—piece of reality that shows up everything else as a sham. Loving a child, Blanche discovers, makes her more vulnerable than she has ever been.
Time is a fluid medium in Frog Music. We plunge into the scene of Jenny’s shooting, step back a month to watch Blanche perform her erotic song-and-dance, nearly inciting a riot in the audience, and rush forward again. Because of this shuttling movement, readers can’t piece together Jenny’s past or the likely involvement of any particular murder suspect until Donoghue draws all the threads together at the novel’s end. Ultimately, the crime’s solution feels unimportant. What will linger are a few gorgeous set pieces. The first is that performance by Blanche at her brothel, the House of Mirrors. “By the fourth verse her strut behind the footlights has grown impudent.
‘You can’t love four, and come knocking on my door—’ Can’t, she insists, but her dance is saying can, can, can, can. She’s never explicit, but these michetons know exactly what she means. Her hips respond to imaginary handling. Blanche moves as dancing girls have moved for as long as there’ve been dancing girls, through the sweaty history of the human race, but better. “You can’t love five, And eat honey from my hive—Darlin’, you can’t love five.”
The second is a scene in which Ernest, who hates Blanche more every day, nurses Arthur through a horrifying bout of smallpox. The third is like the first-date montage in a Hollywood romance: Jenny bringing Blanche along while she hunts frogs in the hills south of San Francisco.
And the music, of course. Popular songs open into the text like time capsules: “’Qui veut m’aimer? Je l’aimerai.’ I’ll love whoever loves me.” The beat that runs through Frog Music is circular, rollicking, stomping, something you can sing as a lullaby or shout over a brimming glass. Jenny sang with her last breaths, back and forth with Blanche before the rifle shot.
While science fiction tends to spark discussions of ethics, politics, and human aspirations, the debate surrounding historical novels is almost always about truth. We don’t want “just the facts” in a novel based on real events, but without them, we feel lied to. For this reason, or perhaps because she was not quite finished with Jenny and Blanche and wanted to share her excitement with us, Donoghue (in company with many other historically-based novelists) explains in the afterword which parts and characters of her story are drawn from the historical record and which are invented. This will thrill anyone who loves research, but I recommend you let the experience of the novel sink in first. Knowing what’s “real” works like a contrast dye on this magical, beautifully-wrought book, and can either highlight Donoghue’s artistry or diminish it.