Thievery: This Is Not Your Great-Great Granddaughter’s Roller Derby
On Thursdays, I invite my favourite writers to share the inspirations behind their stories. Here’s one from the most fabulous Kaite Welsh.
‘This Is Not Your Great-Great Granddaughter’s Roller Derby’ was published in For Books’ Sake’s Derby Shorts anthology.
The truth is, we have always been competing against one another. To be prettier, more accomplished, better-dressed. To be the most marriagable. And though none of us dare say it, this new contest is so much more fun.
Beneath hooped skirts and puffed sleeves, we discover muscle and sinew. Our mothers might tut if the pianoforte’s ruffles slip, exposing a curved wooden leg, but in secret we lift our petticoats and compare calves and thighs with little thought anymore for how shapely our ankles are.
I’d been knee-deep in historical research for my novel, The Wages of Sin, set in 1890s Edinburgh, when the call for submissions for Derby Shorts came out and I thought it would be a welcome distraction from the Victorian era. I came up with a couple of contemporary ideas – a heist, a love story, a murder – when I found myself typing ‘Victorian rollerskating’ into Google. It turned out that there was a skating craze in the middle of the 19th century, and that women in particular became obsessed with it. I promised myself I could write a paragraph to get the idea out of my system – the next time I looked up I had a completed first draft.
My invented origin story for roller derby has the sport being created out of the repressed frustration I imagined a group of intelligent, bored young women would feel at living such narrow lives. Finding a husband was a competitive pastime, so it made sense that these rivalries would spill out during what was supposed to be a ladylike leisure activity. It was also the chance to explore my frustrations with one of my favourite genres – whilst I love historical fiction, I sometimes yearn for my corseted heroines to be a little bit more… kickass. I wanted to recapture the feeling I had when I first watched Jane Austen’s Fight Club, listened to Emilie Autumn’s harpischord-riddled cover of ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ and read Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty series.
Although we think of the 19th century as a very restrictive time for women – which, in many ways, it was – it was also the point when women began to break out of their cages and corsets to get degrees and jobs and form the beginnings of the suffragette movement. I’m particularly interested in how the invention of the bicycle offered women more freedom – ladies’ cycling clubs became wildly popular towards the end of the century, and the need for more practical cycling gear led to the Rational Dress movement that began to question if all these skirts and corsets were really all that practical and mightn’t it be better to start wearing – gasp – trousers? My proto-roller derby league mirrors that, letting my characters explore their physical limits for the first time and begin to question the idea that they are really the fragile, delicate creatures that they are told they are.
I’d briefly attempted roller derby myself, lured by promises of klutzy, curvy girls who found the perfect sport, but it turned out I was just as uncoordinated on wheels as I was off them. My choice of skate name – Julie Slamdrews – suggests that I might not have been as badass as I would have liked. Still, by that point I was hooked and the idea of living vicariously through Diana, Emily and the others was too much to resist – unlike me, my physically awkward heroine was a natural.
As an inveterate lover of puns, one of my favourite aspects of roller derby are the names. Living in Leith, Edinburgh, one of my local teams is the Leithal Weapons and York has the York Minxters. Making suitably Victorian league names was a bit of a challenge, but eventually I came up with the Blue Stockings – reclaiming a term of abuse aimed at intellectual women – the Currer Belles – after Charlotte Bronte’s male pseudonym, Currer Bell, and my personal favourite, the Northanger Abbesses.
Although I’ve only been back to roller derby as a spectator since writing the story, my Victorian derby girls have inspired me to become a bit more physically daring – so who knows, maybe when a spot on the Auld Reekie Rollergirls opens up, I might just get my skates on…
Read ‘This Is Not Your Great-Great Granddaughter’s Roller Derby’ in Derby Shorts.