Antoine Vanner: Writing about a female protagonist – a challenge for a male novelist?

I’m delighted to welcome back Antoine Vanner, creator of the Dawlish Chronicles series featuring Royal Navy officer Nicholas Dawlish (1845-1918) and his wife Florence (1855-1946). Nine volumes have been published to date and I’m looking forward to reading more!

Antoine’s own adventurous life, his knowledge of human nature, his passion for nineteenth-century history and understanding of what was the cutting-edge technology of that time make him the ideal chronicler of the life of Royal Navy officer Nicholas Dawlish. After many years in international business, Antoine has settled in Britain and continues to travel extensively on a private basis.

Over to Antoine to explain how he faced up to the challenge!

The Dawlish Chronicles series feature Royal Navy officer Nicholas Dawlish and his wife Florence.  Except in the first chronologically, Britannia’s Innocent, Florence is either a key player in the plot or an inspiration for her husband when he is seeing action abroad. He’s a driven and “earnest” character with a strong tendency to turn inward and without Florence he may well lapse into depression and pessimism. His successful career depends therefore on her love, loyalty, cheerfulness and courage. She is the great love of his life and he is hers. He risks social ostracism – and his career – by marrying her, despite her having been once in domestic service.

Florence had been a major player in my earlier books, with Nicholas as protagonist. In the process she became very real to me. I knew her character, strengths and weaknesses, and even identified their house in the Portsmouth suburb of Southsea. By now however she was demanding to have a book to herself – and so I wrote Britannia’s Amazon, which details her adventures in Britain at the same time as her husband is in Korea in Britannia’s Spartan. She planned to fill the months of separation with welfare work for seamen’s families. Witnessing the abduction of a young girl that ended that, bringing Florence into brutal contact with Victorian society’s squalid underside. And so the story takes off, leading her into a maelstrom of corruption and violence. The enemies she faces are merciless and vicious, their identities protected by guile, power and influence. Somehow, with unexpected allies, she prevails.

Now, in the latest of the series, Britannia’s Morass, Florence is again the protagonist, her adventures running contemporaneously with those of her husband in Britannia’s Gamble. It’s 1885 and the suicide of a widow troubles Florence. Left wealthy by her husband, this lady died a pauper, beggared within a few months, how and by whom, nobody knows. Lacking close family, she’ll soon be forgotten. But not by Florence. Someone was responsible and there must be retribution. But she makes a single blunder, one that leads her into an ever-deepening morass of betrayal, blackmail and espionage, in which she herself becomes a pawn . . .

Flora Shaw

So what’s the challenge for a male writer who presents a novel’s action through the eyes of a Victorian woman?
Portraying intelligence, courage and resolution is less a problem than reflecting the restrictions that late 19th century society placed on women. I don’t see Florence as a feisty 21st Century woman in re-enactor’s costume, but rather like real women of her own time who pushed the boundaries, steadily, resolutely and successfully. She has something of Flora Shaw (1852-1929), later Lady Lugard, who was Colonial Editor for The Times in the 1880s, investigated colonial abuses and later named Nigeria. Florence has the bloody-minded courage of the wonderful Lady Florence Baker (1841-1916), bought by her husband Sir Samuel Baker when a slave in Romania, and who helped him explore the Upper Nile. There are also traces in Florence of the heroic explorer Mary Kingsley (1862-1900) and of world-traveller Isabella Bird (1831-1904), whose account of Korea was an essential reference when I wrote Britannia’s Spartan. Equally inspiring was Mary Slessor (1848-1915), a Dundee jute-mill worker who went to S.E. Nigeria as a missionary, learned Efik, the local language, and was appointed a vice-consul and magistrate. She is still honoured in Nigeria today, if largely forgotten in Britain.

The practical aspects of a Victorian woman’s life must also be considered
Though needing to watch her outgoings, Florence prefers expensive hansom cabs to using the London Underground Railway in which smuts from the steam locomotives will spoil her hair. Long skirts hinder her as a woman of action, though she’s glad of styles that provide long hat-pins as weapons of last resort.  Self-educated, and culture-hungry, her servant-class origins are still held against her by many. Her cook and housemaid are responsibilities as well as supports. When travelling alone by train she can avail of “ladies-only” compartments and waiting rooms since unwelcome male attention can be a problem. Circumspection is essential when meeting men alone on business. She uses telegrams as the internet of the time and she’s becoming familiar with “telephone machines”.

But for the smallest details a male writer must fall back on female advice – family, friends or other writers who can review the first draft to comment on matters of perception, priorities, clothing and cosmetics. And cosmetics play a major role in Britannia’s Morass

And is it easy? No – but it’s worth it as I’m much in love with Florence!


Connect with Antoine
Twitter: @AntoineVanner
Author Page:

About Britannia’s Morass

It’s 1884 and, in Nicholas’s absence, Florence Dawlish faces months of worry about him. She’ll cope by immersing herself, as she’s done before, in welfare work for Royal Navy seamen and their families at Portsmouth. The suicide of a middle-aged widow evokes memories of her kindness when Florence was a servant. Left wealthy by her husband, this lady died a pauper, beggared within a few months, how and by whom, Florence does not know. The widow’s legal executor isn’t interested and the police have other concerns. Lacking close family, she’ll be soon forgotten.

But not by Florence. Someone was responsible and there must be retribution. And getting justice will demand impersonation, guile and courage.

Florence doesn’t hesitate to investigate blackmail and fraud in fashionable London. But a single wrong decision in circumstances far removed from that world plunges her into an ever-deepening morass, where loyalty to her country and to seamen who served with her husband raises terrifying dilemmas. Old friends support her but old allies who offer help may have different, even sinister, agendas. Higher stakes are involved than she had ever anticipated. In a time of shifting international alliances, in which not all the enemies she faces are British, she can be little more than a pawn. And pawns are often sacrificed . . .

Britannia’s Morass, plays out against a backdrop of poverty and opulence, of courtroom drama and French luxury, of subterfuge, espionage and danger.


To be published in paperback and Kindle on 12th December 2020.
Pre-order the Kindle now at a reduced price of $2.99 (US) and £1.99 (UK)


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines… Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

2 comments to Antoine Vanner: Writing about a female protagonist – a challenge for a male novelist?

  • Alison Morton, I enjoyed reading your interview with Antoine Vanner. I appreciated the fact that a male writer must turn to females to advise on “matters of perception, priorities, clothing and cosmetics.” Kudos to both of you.

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