Houston native Katherine Howe burst on the publishing scene in 2009 with her debut novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, a story about a woman who discovers her ancestor was involved in the Salem witch trials. Now she's back again with The House of Velvet and Glass, about Sibyl Allston, a woman living in Boston in 1915. Howe takes the story from Boston's Chinatown to colonial Shanghai, from the decks of the Titanic to Boston's high society during a time of great cultural and social transition.
"Sibyl Allston has been raised to occupy one kind of world," Howe tells us. "She's been brought up anticipating that she'll live her life in Victorian Boston, but it's a new century. And she hasn't really been prepared for the 20th century."
In the story, Sibyl's mother and her sister have died on the Titanic. She's left with her father, who's a bit of a tyrant, and her brother, who's a bit of a screw-up. "On the outside it looks like Sibyl lives a very privileged life, which, of course, she does. But at the same time, her existence is very restricted. Since her mother and sister are gone, it's up to her to keep her father and brother going. Unfortunately, it's at the expense of her own experience of the world."
Not that Howe gives Sibyl a plain, ho-hum existence. For example, Sibyl attends séances and spiritualist meetings, something Howe says were common at the time. "Boston, like Houston, in 1915 was much, much weirder than we give it credit for. If we somehow landed in Boston in 1915, a lot of it would look the same. A lot of the buildings would be the same, a lot of the streets would be the same. But the intellectual world of 1915 was really very, very different. If you wanted to find out when church services were, you'd look them up in the newspaper. And right next to them there'd be listings about [psychic] meetings. It was the last gasp of the spiritualist movement. In an effort to give Sibyl an authentic experience, I had her go to those meetings."
Howe has a degree in art history and does extensive research about the paintings, furniture, clothes and cultural practices she describes in her books. "I want for my readers to know that if they pick up my book, the details are going to be accurate. It's a little bit tricky, I think, because the most important thing in a novel is for it to work seamlessly. Sibyl, for example, has an eating disorder. It's one of the ways she deals with her anxiety. But 1915 is before eating disorders were invented. The behavior existed, but the pathologizing of it did not. That was something that was true to her character, but I didn't want to talk about it in a 21st century way."
Howe notes that the Victorian era and the flapper era are very different, but like her character Sibyl, many of the same people who lived through one lived through the other. "I'm trained as an art historian and if you read both books, you'll see that I spend a lot of time talking about the material world that surrounds the characters. I discuss the art and the architecture. Picasso's first cubist painting is from 1905, you know. Think about all the dark, heavy Victorian interiors and put a cubist painting in the middle of it. It makes my head want to explode," she laughs.
Katherine Howe appears at 6:30 p.m. on August 24 at Murder by the Book. For information, visit the bookstore's Web site or call 713-524-8597.