This is Not Your Great-Great-Great Granddaughter’s Roller Derby
“The truth is, we have always been competing against one another. To be prettier, more accomplished, better-dressed. To be the most marriageable. And though none of us dare say it, this new contest is so much more fun.”
Fishnets, knee-pads and girls called Bette Noir or Babe Ruthless - the world of roller derby isn’t exactly your average setting for historical fiction. But when women’s writing website For Books’ Sake teamed up with the London Rollergirls and announced they were putting out an anthology of short stories about my favourite sport, I found myself wondering if I could bend the rules a little - and as any rollergirl worth her salt knows, it doesn’t count if you don’t get caught.
As For Books’ Sake’s resident historical fiction expert, I’m a lot more comfortable with corsets than crash helmets and having skated with the London Rollergirls briefly, I decided that writing about it would be a slightly safer way of enjoying the thrill of the track (a theory disproved by a rickety desk chair and a hot cup of tea). When I realised that the 1860s saw a craze for rollerskating, I couldn’t resist imagining exactly what would have happened had a few bored young ladies decided to swap paying calls for outpacing each other on the track.
Beneath the veneer of civility, Victorian women were plagued by many of the same concerns, hopes and rivalries as women today. Why give someone the cut direct when you can booty block her using her own bustle as leverage?
Transplanting the most riot grrl of sports to the nineteenth century wasn’t without its challenges. One of my favourite things about roller derby is the inventive team names, but whilst the LRG have the Suffra-Jets and the Ultraviolent Femmes, finding something period-appropriate was a little harder. Paying homage to two of my favourite Victorian authors - who, let’s face it, would totally be rollergirls if they were alive today - I came up with the Currer Belles and the Northanger Abbesses and, before long, rival gangs of bored débutantes were ready to do battle with each other.
Although my story is a fun romp through an alternate history, it does have some historical precedence. I’d been researching the history of women’s cycling for my novel, The Wages of Sin, where one of the first female medical students in Scotland discovers intellectual and physical freedom (and the odd dead body) and one thing that struck me was how liberated those early girl racers must have felt. There’s a reason every suburban teenager dreams about getting their first set of wheels, and Victorian women were no different.
A writer in 1890s women’s cycling magazine The Wheelwoman describes it:
“What enjoyment to a cramped and warped woman’s life is the whirl of the wheel ... by raising the thoughts in gratitude alone the household cares and drudgery, it gives a woman for one brief while the chance to rejoice in the feeling of liberty and delight in her own strength.”
Derby Shorts was released into the wild on Monday with my contribution leading the pack, and any fears I had that my Victorian vixens might seem out of place next to Magda Knight’s rollerblading assassins or Kat M. Grey’s ballerina gone bad were allayed by a lovely reception. One reviewer called it “the best piece of Victoriana I’ve read in a long time”, which I’m thinking of putting on my business cards or at least in my next query letter. The thing about roller derby is that there’s a place for everyone, whether you’re a rock chick in ripped hotpants or a society lady in the 1860s.
Kaite Welsh is a journalist, author and failed rollergirl. She writes a monthly column on historical fiction for For Books' Sake, her fiction has been nominated for several awards and she once skated face first into a brick wall.