Known as the Savage Girl, Bronwyn is an eighteen-year-old “feral child” who was supposedly raised by wolves in the desert and is starring in a sideshow-typeact in Virginia City, Nevada, when the Delegates-a wealthy family from Manhattan-discover her. The year is 1875, and the Delegates have built a vast fortune on silver mining, giving patriarch Freddy the means to explore his interests in the sciences. Fascinated by what they observe, and hoping to replace a daughter they lost to illness, they whisk Bronwyn away from her exploitative minders and transport her back to New York via their private train, with a plan to civilize and prepare the young woman to become a debutante and dream of a better life.
Only Hugo, their college-age son, questions the wisdom of this scheme. A Harvard anatomy student coping with mental health issues, Hugo is simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by the wild ways of his new “sister,” jealous of the attention she is receiving, and concerned about his parents’ motives. With a suspicious eye trained on Bronwyn he soon notices that although she is a quick study in speech, manners, and fashion, she leads a secret double life, sneaking away late at night disguised as a boy. More disturbing is the discovery that the men she associates with, one by one, are turning up murdered. As he develops his own feelings for her, he wonders if he will be next.
Meanwhile, with her public debut, Bronwyn becomes the object of tabloid fascination, representing all the material excesses and changing social norms of the Gilded Age. With Hugo’s childhood friend Bev Willets helping ease her transformation to society girl, it seems that Bronwyn might actually settle into civilized life.
But when Bev turns up dead, Hugo is arrested. Truly unsure about whether he is responsible for the crime, he decides to take the fall for the person who might be: his beloved Bronwyn. From his prison cell Hugo recounts the story of how Bronwyn came to live with his family and the events that have led up to his confession. Intelligent and observant but fiercely tormented, Hugo must determine his own role in the murders and what future he might have with a girl that no one can seem to control.
Jean Zimmerman’s brilliant historical tale marries a riveting murder mystery with thoughtful inquiry into questions of nature versus nurture, colonization, and multiculturalism. Rich with lively characterization and convincing detail, Savage Girl is that rare novel that is as enlightening as it is entertaining.
Jean Zimmerman is a New York-based writer who has made the history of Manhattan a central focus in her many books. She is the author of the novel The Orphanmaster, as well as several works of nonfiction, including Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance and The Women of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty. An honors graduate of Barnard College, Zimmerman earned a graduate degree in writing from Columbia University. She lives with her family in Westchester County, New York.
What drew you to write about a feral girl and the wealthy family who tries to adopt her?
I’d always wanted to write about a wolf girl, that is, one afflicted with the genetic condition known as hypertrichosis that causes a person to resemble an animal in the growth of fur all over the body. Many children with the problem were exhibited in American sideshows in an earlier period. Related in my mind was the phenomenon of so-called feral children, a girl or a boy purported to be raised in a wolf pack, tales of which have come down through the ages. I ultimately crashed these two ideas together in Savage Girl. My story plunks down a mysterious sideshow waif (minus the fur) in the middle of high-society New York in 1875. I liked the contrast between the lavish life of the Delegates and the girl who has come from what they would see as nothing. Our heroine is thought to have been raised in the wild, perhaps by wolves, and her physicality and force of personality goes against the “shrinking violet” femininity of the day.
What sort of research did you need to do to create a believable world around your narrative? What were some of the most surprising facts you uncovered?
I had previously written a dual biography of a Victorian scion named I. N. Phelps Stokes and his wife, Edith Minturn (Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance). So I had done a good deal of research into the so-called uppertens, the top ten percent of the period-the very wealthy, the denizens of mansions and ballrooms and country houses-all of which the material pertained to. In addition I dove into all I could find about feral children, railroad expansion, silver boomtowns, anatomical science, manufacturing tycoons, women’s high society roles and fashions, and of course everything about the history of nineteenth-century high-society in New York. The nature/nurture debate really was raging, Darwin was new and controversial, so in general the historical context was as accurate as I could make it. Virginia City as I describe it has elements of Mark Twain’s Roughing It, his memoir of spending time there as a cub reporter. The Philadelphia fair was real, and I describe many of the actual exhibits.
A few things surprised me as I went along. One was the figure of the berdache, a Zuni “man-woman,” which was based in actual social history. Another was the tigon, an animal I hadn’t known about before but which really existed in the Central Park Zoo at one point. Also the idea that mules turned the Central Park Carousel, plodding beneath the wooden flooring to spin the decorative horses above-I had heard tales about them, but I had to double and triple check to make sure this was true, as it seemed so strange.
Early on Freddy Delegate says, “You see the wild in collision with the domesticated,” which could be an epigraph for the novel. Can you talk about this idea and what it means to you?
You do see the two posited against each other in Savage Girl. The Delegate family couldn’t be any more civilized, with their mansions, their private train, their afternoon tea and their ideas about what constitutes the proper life of a young lady. I think this is true for most of us today, even if we’re not so rich: we try to lead civilized lives. But the wild is always there, lurking in the shadows and in our psyches, hard to control. And sometimes, as in Savage Girl, there is a positive element to wildness. Thoreau certainly thought so when he wrote, “How near to good is what is wild!” the meaning of which Hugo and his friends debate on a camping trip. There are a number of in-between or hybrid characters in the book, like the berdache, Tu Li and even the tigon. I hope that when we hear what really happened to Bronwyn when she was young we don’t judge her wildness in a negative way. Growing up in the wild made her a strong person, true to herself, contrasted with the Delegates’ artificiality and pretense.
Freddy is a complicated character-his progressive ideals don’t always justify what could be seen as attempts to colonize his wards like Tahktoo and Bronywn. As the creator of this character, how did your opinion of him evolve over the course of writing the book?
Because Freddy believes that both his ideals and his world are correct and proper, he sees nothing wrong with adopting others like Tahktoo and Tu Li into his life. And they are willing to go along with him voluntarily-it’s a meal ticket among other things. To me he started out seeming like a decent enough guy. It gets trickier with Bronwyn, who doesn’t conform to Freddy’s rules. When we hear of his probable willingness to cut her loose when she inconveniences him, we see his darker side, as we see his morality shift toward the end of the book with the big secret he reveals. He evolved for me over the course of the writing from a benign paterfamilias to something much more complex. And his progressive ideals get a harsh dose of reality.
Hugo has an ambivalent relationship with his father. How was this important for the story narratively and metaphorically?
Hugo admires Freddy and wants to live up to Freddy’s expectations. At the same time, he desperately wants to carve out an independent life for himself. He is anxious to be a grown man, yet he is still immature in many ways. As for Freddy, more than anything else he is somewhat oblivious to his son-his narcissim wins out over his love for Hugo much of the time. The Bronwyn project becomes a way for Hugo to prove to his father-and himself-that he is worthy. It’s a way to bond. That Hugo falls in love was not the expected outcome.
Hugo has a stylized manner of narrating the story-how did you find the voice of a nineteenth-century silver scion, and how did it change through revisions? What other resources did you use as preparation?
Writing a novel is always about finding the voice, and it wasn’t immediately apparent that Hugo Delegate should be the one telling the story in Savage Girl. Once he started talking, though, there was no shutting him up. I wanted to create a quasi-Victorian tone, one that would remind you of a book like Frankenstein, yet not be too distracting. The plot required a contemporary momentum as well. Then there was the question of figuring out which parts of the action he would be able to see and describe, because all the narrative comes through him. It was like writing in handcuffs. In other ways I found the “I” voice to be easier and more focused, but carrying Hugo’s anguished perspective for the whole book was a little exhausting at times.
What did the murder plot add to what you wanted to do with the feral child theme?
A random killing here and there really focuses a narrative. We don’t know who is committing the murders in Savage Girl, but indications point to Bronwyn. And with good reason. I learned that children raised in the wild are both incredibly independent and terrifically lonely. Everything is strange to them. Then they might become famous, receiving the attention of scientists down to the hoi polloi-and fame is pretty much the opposite of anything they’ve ever experienced. The rest of the world sees the feral child as a blank slate upon which to write its theories, but the feral child is simply a person, often one who is in pain. It’s a recipe for deep unhappiness in almost all cases. The historical record shows that feral children were prone to violent outbursts. The only way Bronwyn can deal with the puzzle of her origins is through her sharp wit and force of personality. But that strong character is also the source of friction between her and the world. The upheavals that follow her everywhere, the murders and the mysteries, demonstrate her distance from a society we think of as civilized.
Hugo is a fictional character, but he interfaces with historical personages, including William and Alice James and Teddy Roosevelt. Why did you choose to incorporate real-life people in the book?
Adding in some real people enlivened the story, I thought, and it was a pleasure to imagine this questing scion going to William James and his sister, Alice, for advice when he was in a bad way. It sort of leavened the cake of the narrative. Likewise, the supposedly villainous Madame Restell, an important figure of the day, plays a part at a crucial juncture in the story. The attorneys Howe and Hummel were about as central to the crime and punishment of the era as you could get, and I think from the historical record I got them about right, outlandish as they might seem. Victoria Woodhull, a free-love proponent who is a character in the book, was also a leading, scandalous light of the day, devoted to exposing the world of the “fashionables” and helpful for me in showing what might be an alternative lifestyle for young women as they approached maturity.
Bronwyn’s transformation to a debutante brings to mind stories like Pygmalion. Why do we enjoy seeing characters undergoing extreme makeovers? What are the inherent dangers involved in trying to change someone so profoundly?
There are very few stories that are universal, but the Cinderella narrative is one, present in pretty much all cultures. I found the debutante to be a fascinating creature and the Pygmalion-style coming-out process one that was as constricting as it was lovely. It’s all about transformation. The hoops through which a girl jumped represented a coming-of-age ritual, ushering her into adulthood. Bronwyn learns to dress like a lady, with Parisian gowns, weighty crinolines and bustles and trains. It’s all gorgeous stuff but a lot to haul. She has to learn how to move in a certain way and speak in a certain way if she is to appear at her coming-out ball and hopefully win the attentions of an eligible man. Her appearance and her manners are critical calling cards. Without them there is the dire possibility that she might not marry.
So while Bronwyn obtains a fantastic wardrobe in anticipation of her debut that may incite envy, there’s a trade-off. With every step she takes toward becoming a model debutante she loses some freedom. That trade-off is the central problem in the story, and it really moved me as I was working on the novel. I wanted to search beneath the opaque surface of the debuting process, the Pygmalion trope, to find deeper meanings. That meant talking about both corsets and bloomers.
You have written two different novels set in New York now. What interests you most about this city’s history? Can readers expect more Manhattan books from you in the future?
Savage Girl starts out in the western territories, in Virginia City, Nevada, but the Delegates hightail it back to Manhattan where they feel they belong. I guess I feel I belong there, too. For me there’s no locale more fascinating, in any era. The brilliance of its people, the magnificent built environment, the grit and the money. It’s the center of the universe. And in Savage Girl we have the Gilded Age, the term coined by Mark Twain as a satirical jab, suggesting the superficiality and falsity of the period. Late nineteenth-century houses, dresses, jewels, manners all whetted my appetite. Yet 1875 specifically seemed somehow magical, this prelapsarian period before the flood of modernity, before electric lights, automobiles, widespread indoor plumbing, skyscrapers taller than ten stories. This was an especially interesting time, in part because the Civil War had just dipped New York in blood along with the rest of the country. I’ve always loved Wharton and James, and writing Savage Girl allowed me to enter their world as a humble supplicant. Still, this was a time when three-quarters of the population lived on less than one dollar a day, and that’s telling, also. The people who suffered deprivation were agog at people like the Delegates.
My next novel, King Never, is set in Revolutionary War-era New York City, occupied by the British for eight long years, during which time the redcoats had the run of the place and there was lots of intrigue and hardship as well as cowardice and heroism. And fabulous cotillions. There will be some amazing characters, including a young female spy who operates as a midwife to get through enemy lines and an African-American harbormaster who knows where all the bodies are buried.