From author Alan Bradley comes the fifth in his Flavia de Luce novels, Speaking From Among the Bones. The story’s focus is the detective work of an unlikely sleuth, eleven-year-old Flavia. With quick wit and a talented ability of getting herself into the right places at the wrong time, Flavia uses her smarts and love of chemistry to help the local village sheriff with everything from small crime to murder cases. In her latest adventure, Flavia finds herself searching for clues to explain the death of the village’s church organist who appears to have died in a most mysterious way. As the story continues, there are plot twists and surprising clues that pop up in her way. Flavia is persistent to the end to make sure that justice is served (and in time for the digging up of the Saint Tancred, the village’s patron saint). From dead bodies to mysterious tunnels, and a disappearing crystal, Flavia has her work cut out for herself—figuring out exactly who was involved.
Although Speaking From Among the Bones may be a novel geared towards the young adult audience, that does not stop it from being an enlightening and engaging detective novel for adults too. The fact that main character is such a young girl adds to the story line. It is uniquely different from the average modern young adult novel, which makes it a refreshing read. It lends itself extremely well to both the feminist literary theory and the principles of modern feminism. With strong female characters and characters who pursue lives different from the typical English gender roles of the 1950s, Bradley’s novel makes for a great example of what it means to be true to your talents and beliefs rather than staying with the status quo. Never once does Flavia feel the need to apologize for her interest in science and chemistry (atypical for the times), and how she lacks what are considered stereotypic feminine traits. However, she still remains distinctly feminine, never losing her identity even with her tomboy-esque tendencies. Based on Bradley’s extremely successful creation of his female characters, specifically the main character Flavia, this novel makes for what I consider a strong feminist piece that is geared towards a younger generation.
In 2010, the first book of the Flavia de Luce novels, Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, received the high honors of being included on The Bloomer List. The Bloomer List is a list of 54 books that help “alert readers to society’s opposition toward women’s equality and to highlight progress toward this vital goal” and that contain strong “feminist content, quality of writing, and appeal to young readers” (Bradley, “Flavia”). This high honor shows that while Bradley’s writing may be geared towards younger girls, he represents quality writing that can be used in pro-feminist readings and teachings.
Feminism literary theory focuses on how “gender is socially constructed” and is a “product… or illusion,” arguing against the idea from Freud that gender is “natural, innate, or essential” (Klages, 91). The question barrels down to, is being male or female biologically tied to being masculine or feminine? Or is purely determined and constructed by society? The very fact that with the binary opposite of genders places male before female, is an argument society as a whole is the one that structures what it means to be a certain gender. In literature then, feminist analysts examine how gender is portrayed with the novel. Is everyone simply a by-product of society? Do characters break the mold of what is expected of them based on their gender? In literature, feminist analysts examine how gender is portrayed within the novel. Because Speaking From Among the Bones is more of a children’s novel, making this general aspect of the critical theory is almost nonapplicable. However based on Flavia’s young age, Bradley does use ambiguity when it comes to her sexuality, leaving her to be an almost non-binary character with no statements towards sexuality. This allows the room to believe that her character is open to interpretation as she grows older, rather than, for example, making her into what could be a boy-crazy pre-teen theme that is often found in literature where the main character is a female.
Stemming from feminist literary theory, modern feminism focuses on the idea of choice. There is nothing wrong with the decision to lead a life of marriage and raising children, no matter how old-fashioned one might find that idea. But, young girls should be taught that this isn’t the only option and that other choices are available, and that there’s nothing wrong with having interests that fall outside of traditional female roles. A subtle example of this is Flavia’s parents’ background. At the beginning of the story, Flavia tells the reader that it’s her father who is raising the daughters since her mother “died in a mountaineering accident in the Himalayas” (Bradley, 15). From this one sentence alone, it becomes obvious that Flavia inherited her spunk from her mother. This seemingly distant example unconsciously provides an inspiration to Flavia, inspiration that many girls today need. The decision to leave her children in order to go exploring could show Flavia’s mother in a somewhat negative light, but it also shows that she stood for that her life didn’t end with the birth of her children; she still had dreams. Later on, Flavia’s father says that Flavia “[is] her mother” (Bradley, 184) and it’s clear as the story unfolds that this means a lot to her. Having strong, female role models for girls is extremely important, especially during the early developmental stages; it gives them the chance to see what they are capable of achieving.
Flavia early on announces to the reader her love of science and chemistry. “To tell the truth, I’d have rather been at home in my chemical laboratory than sitting here…” (Bradley, 6). Though quite young, Flavia has made herself a walking dictionary of chemicals and poisons. For instance, Chapter Six begins with her reciting different information she knows about chemicals poisons, such as “cyanide … strychnine … [and] arsenic” and how they are her “calming chemicals” (Bradley, 65). She even references Giulia Tofana, a 17th century Italian woman who was famous for creating poisons to sell “to women who wished to have their marriage chemically dissolved” (Bradley, 66). Flavia’s interest in poisons and her love of history lead her to researching her own female idols to look up to as inspiration.
She also draws much of her inspiration from Marie Curie, a female scientist who redefined the idea of women working in science and is seen as a great example of feminism in the work force. Curie’s influence in the world has made its way into the fictional story world for Flavia. In the world of math and sciences, women have continued to make strides over time, but it’s a still long way from having equality within those fields. Encouraging young girls to explore their interests in those fields is extremely important, and how better than through a young female character whose intellect, curiousity, and talents are used for good. Not many novels today feature young girls, or even women of an older age, that have talents involving chemistry or other similar interests. The idea of working in the field of science goes against the binary image of what is given to women based on societal structure. Sometimes there is an unconscious level of discouragement from society toward girls who are interested in these fields. By not presenting girls with proper scientific role models, such as Marie Curie, girls will not consider science or math as possible fields to go into. This underlying and subtle push from society often goes unchecked and unchallenged. These fields will only continue to be male-dominated if we don’t promote or encourage them to be interested in topics such as chemistry or math.
Part of the feminism theory in literature addresses how different genders displayed. For instance, Flavia features very tomboyish qualities while also showing a traditionally masculine interest in science. Flavia also doesn’t fit with what was typically expected of young girls, such as being involved in traditional young female activities (being a part of her village’s St. Tancred’s Girl Guides before her “dishonorable discharge from the troop” [Bradley, 30]). It certainly seems to take a special talent to get oneself kicked out of a girls troop, no doubt stemming from Flavia’s lack of female gender qualities, being docile or following orders. Flavia also found herself admitting to her own interests in anything morbid, “torn between revulsion and pleasure—like tasting vinegar and sugar at the same time. But pleasure, in such cases, always wins” (Bradley, 39). This preference to the morbid and often revolting is something that is continually frowned upon today, and not just selectively amongst women. Flavia’s circle included few people who were able to admit that the darker side of things intrigues them. But this ability to accept herself and her interests is something that people of all genders still struggle with today, and it’s reassuring to think that there are youth who feel positive about themselves regardless of how others feel about them. Not once in the novel does Flavia feel the need to apologize for her interests, and her interests are in fact celebrated by the village thanks to her ability to use them for common good.
At first glance, Alan Bradley’s Speaking From Among the Bones seems simply to be an interesting detective novel featuring a young girl as the main character. However, once the reader delves deeper into the story, it becomes obvious that there are strong lessons to be found within, particularly when looking through the lens of a feminist literary critic. Alan Bradley has been celebrated before for his strong writing when it comes to presenting pro-feminist literature through his main character, Flavia de Luce. Flavia is an independent, adventurous young girl who takes the initiative to educate herself on the matters of chemistry and poisons. Along with that, she finds herself a couple steps ahead of her village’s local sheriffs office as she helps solves murder mysteries.
Barely eleven years of age, Flavia represents an underwhelming portion of female characters, girls who are interested in the fields of math and science. While her background includes looking up to a strong female role model (her mother), she in turn becomes a strong role model herself. She does not sit and hold her tongue; instead she speaks out for what she thinks is right. And when necessary, she takes initiative and delves into mysteries on her own, taking calculated risks that are often needed.
Through the feminist literary theory, it’s also possible to see Flavia’s youth as ambiguous sexuality, leaving the idea that it is not necessary to define someone’s attraction to gender to give him or her their identity. Flavia’s actions and interests are shocking for the book’s setting in an English village in the 1950s, but what’s equally shocking is that she’s still a phenomenon in today’s modern literature featuring female characters. What she provides is an example for young girls that it’s okay to be interested in science or things that are a little different from what’s perceived as the “norm”. Flavia opens the door for young girls to explore another option in life. And while doing that she reminds them to have a little bit of fun while you’re solving the mystery of life.
Bradley, Alan C. “Flavia Makes the Bloomer List! « Flavia De Luce.” Flavia De Luce
RSS.Alan Bradley, 13 Mar. 2010. Web. 02 Apr. 2013.
Bradley, Alan C. Speaking From Among the Bones. New York: Delacorte, 2013.
Klages, Mary. Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Continuum, 2006.