On Writing Steampunk and Accessibility

captaindukeSteampunk literature is a disruption of the historical narrative. When I’m creating a universe for my characters, I treat history like the icing on the cake. Or, sometimes, the rosettes. I am creating a world with airships, sky pirates, auto-baubles and appropriated Victorian aesthetics. I pick and choose which parts I borrow from our history and which parts to embellish.

So, I chose to base the Tales of the Captain Duke on a society where advancements in gender equality and intersectionality happened far earlier than those in our timeline, but I also wanted to ensure that the struggle for those achievements was not erased.

Enter Professor Georgina Jameson Sewell.

Professor Sewell* is the mad genius inventor of the story, a mentor to the protagonist’s brother, a character whose alliances are yet unknown but whose passion for her work is readily apparent. She is also missing a leg.

In a steampunk universe, particularly one with pirates, a missing leg is no big issue. There’s the classic image of the peg leg to work with, for one. The idea that a lost eye or limb is a minor setback, as long as you find a way to adapt and fight again. Pirates are rather inclusive when you think about it.

Professor Sewell takes that one step further, to change the very society in which she lives. A childhood accident led to her disability. However, thanks to her intelligence and perseverance, she never learned to see barriers—only possibilities yet to be realised. Her parents gave her books and encouraged her correspondence with the authors when the source material was inadequate. They supported her as she began to invent her own creations, including her magnificent clockwork leg.

Professor Sewell learned that she could shape her environment to suit her needs. That accessibility was a matter of challenging and overcoming systemic barriers. And why stop there?

In our universe, the social model of disability was coined in 1983 by the British academic Mike Oliver, and expanded over time by researchers and advocates around the world into our modern conception of the ways that society is structured to impede the differently-abled.

It can be something as simple as changing physical structures to include ramps, for wheelchair users. Or acknowledging the different but equally valid needs of a person with an anxiety disorder. Including translators or sign language interpreters for people who communicate in a different language. These are all ways in which we make our society more accessible and inclusive.

So, in a steampunk setting, what does accessibility look like?

In the Tales of the Captain Duke, Professor Sewell is the morally-ambiguous Tony Stark figure. She becomes one of the first students at Lovelace University, a school founded by Mary Somerville and funded by the heirs of Ada Lovelace. She pioneers the field of biomechanical engineering with her incredible prosthetics and reshapes the Victorian understanding of disability. The classic image of the crippled, impoverished veteran pushing himself on a scooter is undone, reshaped into a foreman supervising work at a factory on eight-foot legs.  The Professor disrupts society with her inventions, and challenges her peers’ understanding of the possible.

This idea of possibility is also brought into play when she is challenged anew with helping a friend and ally injured in battle. Here, the wound is not only physical, but psychological as well. Professor Sewell learns to treat not just the mechanical impairments, but also those of the mind.

I won’t spoil anything as to how she achieves this end, but let us just say that overcoming barriers is a talent of hers.

As an author, I feel that it is important to critically examine the social structures we reproduce in our writing. Everything we put into our books, we bear responsibility for. Those choices are ours, good and bad, and we must take ownership of them, even as we grow and improve and write better stories. It’s a choice, to include characters who are different than us. To give them complexity and dimension. To dispute stereotypes and tokenistic representation.

Steampunk is particularly suited to encompass these kinds of decisions. The broader steampunk community has founded itself on inclusion, diversity and body positivity. But these are choices that we still must work to uphold, and do the difficult labour of ensuring that our work and our communities remain open to all.

Our work is not yet done. But the possibilities are endless.

–Rebecca Diem

*I would like to thank Brooklyn Marx, and acknowledge the work she did in reading over the early drafts of A Gentleman and a Scholar (Tales of the Captain Duke #3) for its accessibility content.


Author Rebecca DiemRebecca Diem is a writer, music lover and nerd. She is the author of the indie steampunk series Tales of the Captain Duke, beginning with The Stowaway Debutante (2014), following the adventures of a defiant young aristocrat who saves a band of airship pirates from certain peril and talks her way into joining their crew. Her favourite feature of steampunk is its ability to disrupt and re-imagine both history and the future. She currently lives in Toronto, and is on a never-ending quest to find the perfect café and writing spot. You can find her at https://rebeccadiem.com/.


The Complex Tensions of the Industrial Revolution’s Factories by Daniel Ausema

A view of the factories of  Manchester.         Date: circa 1870    Source: Unattributed illustration.
A view of the factories of Manchester. Date: circa 1870 Source: Unattributed illustration.

In previous interviews, essays, and blog posts, I’ve talked about some of my influences, some of what has led to my interest in steampunk. One of the key influences I’ve mentioned was the gaslight village section of a local history museum when I was growing up. For setting the mood of a steampunk city street, there’s nothing better.

Recently, thinking back on different books I’ve read and studied, I recalled one book that I’ve unjustly overlooked, one that probably had a far bigger influence than I’d ever realized. But first to set the stage…

I was eighteen, beginning my second semester of college. I was ambitious, eager to push myself with a difficult class, unwilling to ease my way up through the intermediate, 200-level courses. So I jumped straight into an advanced, 300-level class on Victorian Literature. I don’t recall now why I wanted that specific course, but for some reason I insisted on it despite my advisor’s concern that I wasn’t prepared.

I was also sleep deprived: involved in several on-campus clubs, working in the school’s library, staying up too late as I discovered the world of online social life, and competing in track, which was far more intense than high school track had been. And to not put too fine a point on it…I wasn’t prepared for a 300-level lit class.

When you think of Victorian lit, your mind probably goes to Dickens and the Brontë sisters. We read none of them—the professor likely assumed we’d read plenty of those in earlier lit classes. Instead we read our share of poetry—Tennyson, Arnold, and Browning primarily, though also some later Victorian works including Christina Rosetti and Gerard Manley Hopkins as well as an entire novel-in-verse that sleep-deprived me did not appreciate in the least. (Probably Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, though I can’t say that with certainty.)

north and south coverI dove into Tennyson’s Arthurian poems and immersed myself in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s paintings (as any self-respecting wannabe fantasist would…). But it may well have been the prose novels that had a longer-lasting effect on me. The two big ones we read that semester were George Elliot’s Adam Bede and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South.

Novels at the time were often seen as lesser works, and—in keeping with the ideals of the time—suitable only for women. Well, Elliot and Gaskell both were women writers to be reckoned with, unwilling to be shunted aside, and their books have continued to be read ever since.

Gaskell’s North and South especially shaped how I’ve approached the industrial revolution ever since. The story was originally serialized (with Charles Dickens as her editor!). You can easily read a summary of the story at Wikipedia, so I won’t reiterate that here. And in fact, it wasn’t so much the specifics of the story that stayed with me. Rather, it was the complex tensions of its industrial city setting—the story’s heroine, Margaret, finds herself at a cross point between the factory workers and the factory owners in a fictionalized industrial city in England.

Gaskell avoids simplistic good-vs-bad characterizations as Margaret comes to know the people at various levels of her society and as she navigates the tensions between the ideals she aspires to of caring for everyone and the specifics of the people she is coming to know, especially one young factory owner.

Gaskell was a friend of Charlotte Brontë’s (and her first biographer), and the novel is sometimes compared to Jane Eyre (which, for the record, I did read on my own time a few years later). The two novels are quite different in many ways, but those very differences help show the concerns of each writer. For a steampunk writer, artist, or maker, it’s the social backdrop of North and South that will be of special interest.

So to make your steampunk stories more well rounded, go check out one of the classic novels of the Victorian era. You won’t regret it.

Learning languages in the Victorian era

Daniel Ausema’s steampunk serial

I suspect that for most of us when we imagine a steampunk-era education, the image that comes to mind is one of two things: a private tutor in a wood-lined library in the family manor or hard desks in a sparsely ornamented classroom run by a strict teacher.

There’s no doubt truth in these images, but as a language teacher myself, I wanted to dig a little deeper into how languages were taught in Europe in the Victorian era. I discovered a history of idealism and two competing ideas about teaching language, as well as theft and betrayal.

Prior to the Victorian era, the idea of learning another language meant one thing, whether with that tutor in your family library or in an austere classroom with a harsh taskmaster. It required intense learning of the grammatical rules of the other language paired with rote translation of texts, specifically those texts seen as literarily or historically significant. And here all the images we have of knuckle-rapping and joylessly belligerent teaching come to bear.

It’d be like expecting a traveler to an English-speaking country to learn the language by studying grammatical distinctions between the present perfect and pluperfect and then translating Shakespearean speeches. Much as I love Shakespeare’s monologues, they would hardly prepare someone to talk with strangers on the streets today–or even in Victorian-era London.

So in 1835, the French teacher Jean Manesca published a radical new approach. He had been using the approach for a number of years by then, teaching French in the United States, and had shared his ideas with some others who adapted them to their own language teaching. His argument was that the grammar-translation approach might be good and fine for learning to read an ancient language like Latin or other languages no longer spoken, but it was terrible for learning to speak a living language.

Manesca advocated a style of teaching that was supposed to mimic the way we learn languages naturally as children…although in truth the rote way he laid it all out, sounds scarcely more engaging than the strict grammarian approach. (Incidently, a very similar divide continues to exist in language teaching theories, though the specific approaches on both sides have grown more sophisticated.)

The key point for our steampunk interests was the idealism that lay under it…and the theft that would soon follow.

Jean Manesca wrote that “teaching ought not to be a torment; a mental acquisition which is desired, should not be purchased at the price of any mental or corporeal suffering…” which goes against our image of the cruel Victorian teacher…

One of Manesca’s followers, Don Carlos Rabadan, adapted Manesca’s approach to Spanish. In his Spanish-English textbook he wrote, “For if pleasure alone be our object, without regard to its great utility, what can be more gratifying than to be able to converse fluently with [people] of different countries?”

I love this sense of idealism that underlies Manesca’s approach. Language wasn’t an end in itself, but a vital part of improving the world, bringing an enlightened peace. That it didn’t, well, is to be lamented, but making space for this kind of grand ideal in our steampunk stories is one way to give them added dimension. And maybe even weaving in the failure of such an ideal…

For all his influence, however, Manesca did not become famous. Instead Henri Ollendorff, a German who taught Latin, took Manesca’s lessons and translated them (often directly, with no changes in examples or sequence) into Latin.

Soon, elite tutors bragged of the Ollendorff method. It was seen as a sign of sophistication to have learned with the Ollendorff method, which came to be used for German, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, Greek, and Arabic. Several popular editions of his books were published in the 1840s and beyond. As for the Manesca method? No one spoke of it. (In fact, at the time of this writing, Manesca’s only appearance in Wikipedia is on Ollendorff’s page, with a dead link to a page yet to be written about Jean Manesca.)

I have not been able to uncover any reaction from Manesca to Ollendorff’s theft and fame, though his son Louis was very critical of Ollendorff. I like to imagine how they might have greeted each other, though. An idealistic gratitude that at least Manesca’s approach was spreading? Or a bitterness that the upstart had stolen his chance for fame?

Either one could make a very cool layer in a steampunk story. No need to make it specifically about language teachers, but that dynamic of idealism, innovation, theft, and adaptation are all so central to the technological and societal changes of the Victorian era. How cool to incorporate some aspect of that into our steampunk stories!

Much thanks to the Boston Language Institute’s blog (https://bostonlanguage.wordpress.com/2015/02/03/jean-manesca-the-first-modern-foreign-language-teacher/), which started me looking into Manesca, his followers, and imitators.

Daniel Ausema is the author of Spire City and one of the original Steampunk Cavaliers. Find him on Twitter @ausema.

Did you enjoy this post? Learn something fascinating? Want to see more posts like it? Let us know in the comments section below!

Dueling in the 19th century

Free image from pixabay https://pixabay.com/en/gun-pistol-handgun-weapon-firearm-1144112/This is the first of many articles exploring the Victorian world steampunk novels are based on. Enjoy!


For hundreds of years, one of the key markers of social privilege and good breeding was was the right to defend personal honor with deadly force. To most of us today, the idea of exchanging gunfire over accusations of cheating at cards or the assertion that someone has lied seems ridiculous, but for those who aspired to the status of “gentlemen,” these accusations could become matters of life and death.


Aristocrats in Europe fought duels for hundreds of years, but the type of formal combat of most interest to steampunk enthusiasts is the pistol duels of the early 19th century. In England and the United States, these were generally conducted under some local variation of the Irish Code Duello, which was promulgated in 1777, at about the time that pistols began to replace swords as the most common weapon on the field of honor.


The code consists of 25 rules, many of which are designed to defuse the dispute. The Code lays out several point at which an “apology” or “explanation” may be honorably offered and accepted. Special emphasis is given the role of the seconds, the trusted assistants to the principal parties of the duel.  Rule 21 states: Seconds are bound to attempt a reconciliation before the meeting takes place, or after sufficient firing or hits, as specified.


The Code gives the challenged the right to choose the weapon and  the ground, while the challenger chooses his distance, and the seconds fix the time and terms of firing.


The weapons were generally large-caliber, smooth-bore muzzle-loading pistols. Dueling pistols were often works of art in their own right, but not very accurate or reliable by modern standards. The lack of rifling — which causes the bullet to spin for stability — combined with the uneven quality of black powder and the unreliability of flintlock and percussion cap firing mechanisms limited the lethality of these weapons. Most codes took advantage of these defects to lower the lethality even further, limiting the number of shots that could be fired (typically to three) and counting a misfire as one of those shots.


The main concerns with choosing a dueling ground were picking a place where there would be no interference from the law. Even though dueling was widely accepted in this era, it was often illegal. River islands were popular dueling fields, because there was frequently some uncertainty about which state the island was in, and the jurisdictional issue could give a prosecutor an excuse not to act. Maryland hosted many of the politically-motivated duels originating in Washington, DC because the practice was legal in Maryland but banned in the nation’s capital.


The code does not specify a standard distance, but sources describe a typical separation between participants  as 30 to 40 feet.


Dawn is the traditional time of day for a duel. The low light and mist of the early morning hours aid in concealing the activity, and waiting for at least a day gives all the participants a chance to sleep on their decisions.


Terms of firing could vary. The duelists could stand at the agreed-upon distance and fire upon an agreed-upon signal. They could also fire “at pleasure,” leaving each participant to work out their own trade-off between firing accurately and firing rapidly. There are even some cases where the duelists agree to take turns firing at each other. Given the accuracy and reliability of the pistols involved, this probably wasn’t completely irrational, but it seems like it would be terrifying.


Depending on the code being used, the seriousness of the offense, and the agreement of the parties, the duel could end in many ways. A simple exchange of shots with no one being hit was considered sufficient in many cases, giving each man a chance to prove their seriousness and courage. Other duels might end when at least one participant was hit, or it might continue until one of the participants was disabled. In some cases, the dispute might not be considered settled until one participant was dead.


Dueling’s popularity declined sharply during the latter part of the 19th century. In England, removing the privilege of dueling from the aristocracy was part of a movement against aristocratic privilege in general. Some sources also suggest that boxing began to substitute for dueling at about this time. In the United States, dueling’s decline is often attributed to a reaction against the mass death of the Civil War, and the defeat of the Southern planter class. The increasing reliability and accuracy of firearms probably also played a role.


Like many aspects of the 19th century, dueling will not be missed by most people. However, it does survive in steampunk circles today as the sport of tea dueling.