Thought time travel was reserved for sci-fi? In The River of No Return, author Bee Ridgway proves that it suits Regency romance just as well.
Zola: Your characters come from all across the time stream, yet you chose early 1800s for the backdrop. What about that era appealed to you?
Bee Ridgway: I’m a scholar of 19th century literature, so it is what I know, what I teach, the era about which I am constantly thinking. My novel is partly set in that serious world of historical ‘accuracy’. Second, I am a huge, unabashed, entirely unrepentant fan of the Regency romance, of Georgette Heyer, of Jane Austen spin-offs, of that sun-shiny, almost entirely fantastical fictional world. My novel is partly set there, in that twinkle-toed parallel universe where the young Colin Firth wanders around in a wet linen shirt and all the horses are gorgeous and everyone looks fantastic in tight trousers or empire dresses.
But there is a third, more complicated reason for why my time travel novel is set in 1815. The early 19th century in Britain was extremely time-travelly—by which I mean that it was a moment when time was moving very quickly, when change was happening at lightning speed. My main male character, Nick, has spent ten years in the 21st century as a rich, good-looking, but nameless man in the crowd. When he goes back to 1815, he is still rich, still good-looking, but he must step back into his old, hand-made shoes and remember what it feels like, what it means to be a Georgian aristocrat. What he discovers is that, in 1815, the age-old feelings of noblesse oblige are eroding, and he must find a way to be modern, even though he is now living in ‘the past’.
Across the first decades of the 19th century people began to look more like us, and more importantly, they began to feel more like us, to have modern emotions, modern ambitions, modern desires. After the French and American revolutions, political feeling was more like it is now than like it had been a mere twenty years earlier. Europe was embroiled in a world war fought over decidedly modern ideas of what a non-monarchical nation should and shouldn’t be. Enlightenment notions of freedom and of personal responsibility began to be naturalised into everyday experience, as newspapers and increased education created a more knowledgeable populace. Week by week the industrialization of Europe was changing how people lived, how they made money, what they ate, how they travelled, how they spent money, and how they occupied their new free time. By 1810 men looked like Mr. Darcy rather than like King George III—in other words their suits, their haircuts, how they greeted one another in the street, all began to look like ‘now’ rather than ‘then’. The aristocracy was moribund, and novels and plays were teaching the middle classes that ‘love’ rather than property, money and political alliance should be the basis of marriage, and ‘romance’ as we now know it became a driving force—perhaps the driving force – behind the stories Europeans were telling themselves about what constituted a happy life.
All of which is to say that I see 1815, the year of Waterloo, as a watershed. One era of many hundreds of years’ duration, monarchical Europe, was fading away so quickly it already seemed like a dream. Another era, the so-called ‘Enlightenment’, or the mechanized era, or modernity, was coming into flower. My guess is that everyone felt like time-travellers as the world changed around them day by day—much as we do now. I wanted to put our moment up against that moment and see what they had to say to each other. I wanted to do it specifically through a love story, because I think we tend to imagine that true love is some eternal feeling—but I believe it has a history, and that Nick’s struggle to reconcile his contemporary and his Georgian self is also a struggle to determine whether or not love can last ‘forever’.
Zola: Time travel is often determined by a device like Hermione’s Time Turner in Harry Potter or Back to the Future‘s DeLorean. How did you come to the idea of using human emotions as a way of travel?
BR: I didn’t want my time travelers to be concerned with machinery or magical objects. I wanted their experience of the past and the future to be a passionate one, an experience of connection and yearning. For that reason, I wanted the capacity for time travel to be something that certain people have as a part of their physical being, like color-blindness, or perfect pitch. But I think the idea really came from my teaching. I’m a literature professor, and my field is 18th and 19th century American literature. Some of those books are very difficult for my students, and the problem isn’t the difficulty of the writing. The problem is that different feelings were valued back then. It’s an amazing thing to watch a student who thinks she hates something like The Scarlet Letter, suddenly catch on fire with understanding. Her understanding is emotional. And when she touches that understanding, she experiences something like time travel. If you really want to experience time travel through reading, if you really want to be overwhelmed by the passions of the past, I have two suggestions for you that invariably produce that sensation of falling backward in time for my students. The first is Walt Whitman’s poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” And the second is Little Women. My students tend to either adore or hate that novel, but their personal opinion doesn’t matter – they almost all cry when Beth dies. It’s as if they are grabbed by the throat by that moment in the sentimental tradition, and forced to cry. That’s time travel through emotions, of the kind my character Nick experiences. He doesn’t necessarily like the feelings of the past, but he must feel them.
Zola: You take part of your pen name from your grandmother. Did she have any influence on you becoming a writer? Was she herself a big reader, and if so what books did she like?
BR: My grandmother, Lelah Fern Ridgway, was born in 1904 and raised in rural Oklahoma and Missouri. She was educated in one-room schoolhouses and I don’t think she graduated from high school. But nevertheless she grew up believing that reading could save you from anything. She was a complicated woman, an angry person, and she couldn’t quite handle the hand she’d been dealt. She put my mother and my uncle in an orphanage in St. Louis and lived by herself in an SRO for many, many years… one of her only possessions was a library card. She read everything she could get her hands on, but her passion was history. She knew everything there was to know about American and European history. Her favorite novel—and she adored it so much that she actually spent precious money on it—was Jospehine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. That’s Tey’s incredible historical mystery about Richard III. I recently looked it up and found that it tops many lists for the best mystery novel ever written. I guess my grandmother had good taste! I’m so sorry she died before they discovered Richard III’s body under that parking lot. She would have absolutely adored seeing his curved spine for herself. She wrote a novel herself, late in her life, an autobiographical novel about growing up in rural Missouri. It was called Yellertop. But she gave it to someone to edit, and that person rewrote it, and took all of my grandmother’s gorgeous Ozark sayings and turns of phrase out. She was so disheartened that she threw away the original manuscript, and never did anything with the mutilated version. I think of her a lot as I write. I am deeply in her debt, and very lucky to have been born in the 1970s, when a nerdy, impassioned girl-child without much money had a chance to grow up and get an education, a chance to be happy and fulfilled as an intellectual and as a creative writer.
Zola: If you could time-travel to have lunch with anyone, who would you choose and why?
BR: That question makes me so nervous! What if I choose someone horrible, or what if they turn out to be boring? Or find me boring? Oh God. But here goes. I think it would be incredibly cool to have lunch with Moctezuma II, right before the Spanish arrive. I find him fascinating – why did he make the choices he did regarding the Spanish? Some of it had to do with prophecy, but we know enough about him to know that he was an extremely intelligent man, a philosopher and a strategist. What was his plan? Plus, frankly, I think he could benefit from a few things I could tell him! And I would really like to see that great city and learn about Mesoamerica before the destruction. And eat the food. You said lunch, right? Mesoamerican cuisine was apparently out-of-this-world amazing. We’ve lost literally hundreds of varieties of potatoes, tomatoes, beans, squash… yum.
Zola: You’re currently working on a sequel. Is that something you planned all along, or did you come to that decision while writing The River of No Return? Can you reveal any plot details?
BR: No, I didn’t plan a series from the beginning. Basically, the first draft was simply Nick and Julia’s love story, with a bit of scary corporate time-travel stuff thrown in for flavor. When I started revising, the book got much more complex. I began to layer different genres onto the romance, and I began to put those genres in conversation and competition with one another. The question of the Pale—the threat from the future that no one quite understands—didn’t arrive until a later draft. Essentially, the love story stays resolved, but the world I was inventing got more and more complex until it became clear that I needed a sequel to answer all the questions. I know that frustrates some readers, but I promise, it just keeps getting more exciting! I’m working away on the sequel now, and all I can say is, hold on to your hats!
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.