I don’t usually dream with such clarity, and when I woke I was grinning from the joy this wild entertainment my sleeping brain had delivered me. I wrote it down, knowing it could make for an amazing scene in a book. Instead, it became the beginning point of my second historical fiction novel, The Daughter of Victory Lights.
It’s so often the case with historical fiction that the parts which read as the most outlandish or fantastical are the parts which are actually based on truth. People who have read The Daughter of Victory Lights ask me if the performing boat was real, as it’s so believable to them. But it’s one of the few pieces of fiction in the book, and the part which readers find hardest to comprehend is one hundred per cent fact.
Handstands and diving weren’t enough to make an entire performance from; so, to create a full show I turned to burlesque. The 1950s was burlesque’s booming era, and the combination of humour and provocative fanfare was something I knew would be a perfect fit for my boat, which was populated with outcasts and misfits from all over the globe. So the research began — and a world of daring women who willingly broke the law was opened up to me.
RULING THE GENRE: Why we love historical fiction
QUEENS OF THE CATWALK: Burlesque fashion in Paris
Today, burlesque is considered an almost old-fashioned artform, with its feather boas, fan dances, pin-up curls and visual gags. Dita Von Teese is a household name, and burlesque shows are performed in some of the world’s most renowned theatres.
But in its heyday, burlesque was illegal. It could, and did, result in jail time not just for performers, but for anyone who so much as watched a single act.
The women performers had been through the Second World War. During those years they had worked in factories, on tractors, operating anti-aircraft spotlights (as my protagonist Evelyn does), flying aeroplanes, and farming land. Their war work made the rigid expectations society had previously put on them seem suddenly not only limiting, but also wrong. When joy became a precious, short-lived commodity, it was rule-breaking which allowed it to be found again. For burlesque’s burgeoning popularity gave servicemen a few hours’ escape and laughter before they returned to the horrors that awaited them on the battlefield.
When the war was over and these women were expected to go back to their quiet domestic lives of before, they resisted. They had relished the independence, the ability to earn their own money, the capacity to make people laugh. They hadn’t survived a war just to be told they couldn’t make their own decisions anymore.
So they took to the stage and embraced all the risks that went with it. A black market of burlesque began, with hidden clubs popping up all over major cities, many of them well-equipped to withstand regular police raids. Performers delighted in the illegality of their rebellion; police characters became regular comic foils in acts, a blundering fool to make the equally law-breaking audiences roar.
As the censorship continued, the acts only got bigger and more blatant. The famed Zorita not only included live snakes in her acts, she “walked” them on a leash between tables when not performing. Rosita Royce would enter the stage fully dressed and a group of trained doves would take her clothing off one piece at a time. It was a post-war defiance, a celebration of opulent exhibitionism. It was indulging in life and all the things that the hard war years had deprived them of. It was an exuberant declaration of “we survived and we won”.
I didn’t have to embellish or invent when it came to the burlesque in The Daughter of Victory Lights. It might seem far-fetched to modern sensibilities, but these rebels in red lipstick and fishnet stockings survived a war then kept on fighting for the freedom of their own bodies. They paved the way for a whole world of performance possibilities and women’s rights.
And that, readers, is a fact.
The Daughter of Victory Lights, by Sydney-based author Kerri Turner and published by HarperCollins Australia, is on sale now.
Missy Carmichael remembers the post-war days — but her story is set very much in the now. The extraordinary Saving Missy by Beth Morrey is our Book of the Month, which means you get if for 30 per cent off at Booktopia with the code MISSY.
And do come talk books of all flavours at the Sunday Book Club Facebook group.