Frog Music, the latest novel by Emma Donoghue, is set in San Francisco, 1876. A stifling heat wave and smallpox epidemic have engulfed the City. Deep in the streets of Chinatown live three former stars of the Parisian circus: Blanche, now an exotic dancer at the House of Mirrors, her lover Arthur and his companion Ernest. When an eccentric outsider joins their little circle, secrets unravel, changing everything – and leaving one of them dead. Here are the 10 words at the heart of Frog Music. 

by Emma Donoghue

1. City. Like the residents of other big and self-satisfied urban settlements such as London, by the 1870s San Franciscans often called their hilly metropolis of some two hundred thousand people, simply, ‘the City’.  Writing Frog Music, I thought a lot about what a specifically urban Californian life would have meant to my main characters (Parisians who emigrated to San Francisco): its pleasures (restaurants, brothels, theatre, music, alcohol, opium), oddities (a startling ethnic mix, an indulgence of eccentrics), terrors (anti-Chinese riots, a smallpox epidemic), and freedoms. 

Chinatown, San Francisco
‘The Street of Gamblers (Ross Alley)’. San Francisco's Chinatown by Arnold Genthe, 1898.  

2. Sex. Firstly, the having, the performing, the selling of sex – because my heroine, Blanche Beunon, was an erotic dancer and prostitute who stashed enough away to buy a five-storey building downtown. (San Francisco’s social scene was dominated by filles de joie (joy-girls) from its Gold Rush days in the 1840s, even if the city government was trying to force them into the shadows by the 1870s.) But also, sex as in gender: one woman in my novel, Jenny Bonnet, was repeatedly charged, fine and even imprisoned for the crime of ‘wearing the apparel of the other sex’. I found no evidence that she was actually trying to pass as male – only that from her early twenties on, she preferred trousers. Something I love about historical fiction is that you can explore ambiguities like these without having to fit modern labels to them.

Anita Garibaldi in trousers, 1840s
Anita Garibaldi, wife of Giuseppe, ahead of her time in trousers in the 1840s.

3. Maque. The lead male in my story, Arthur Deneve, was Blanche’s maque – a term only roughly equivalent to pimp, because these pretty boys simply lived off their French sex-worker girlfriends, rather than running the business side of things, and were said to spend their time – in pairs – showing off their elegant duds and bling around town, or even doing light housework. The word survives in English in constructions that have crossed over from African-American to college slang, such as he’s a mack and they were macking (it); see here.

4. Dandy. The leisurely, aristocratic dandy, celebrated in the writings of Charles Baudelaire, was supposed to have ‘no profession other than elegance’, and raise shallowness to the level of serious art; he was assumed to have taste, erudition, eloquence and wit to go with his elegance. The notion of dandyism was popular enough that even former circus performers like Arthur and his live-in friend Ernest could aspire to it. While Jenny got locked up for wearing pants, they spent their time – and Blanche’s earnings – perfecting male dress as a performance.

5. Bohemian. Just as anti-bourgeois as the aspirational dandy, the bohemian could be considered his downwardly mobile cousin; in his stained shirt and bare garret lodgings, he might have looked unlike the suave dandy but he was blowing a raspberry at the respectable world in just the same way, and the two types of men often mingled in the same seedy cafes. I decided that their background in mid-nineteenth-century Paris circus meant that Arthur and Ernest were very likely to at least spout bohemian values of vaguely revolutionary politics, anti-materialism and free love.

6. Grisette. This word didn’t make it into the final draft of Frog Music but the concept – of the pert young Frenchwoman who probably combined work in the garment industry with a bit of sex for hire, or at least was sexually adventurous – lies behind my heroine, Blanche, or at least how the men in her life might have seen her.  The dandy and the bohemian could be called two variations on self-absorbed male privilege; their girls were expected to dance and smile, somehow produce no babies and make no fuss.

7. School. The so-called San Francisco Industrial School was a grim institution that taught juveniles (as young as three, or as old as twenty), who were sometimes only guilty of homelessness, nothing but how to survive incarceration and brutal punishment. Because of my own home country of Ireland’s breast-beating over the past few decades about its history of locking up its young, I was very interested in tracing the long shadow cast by such an institution in that city known for its freedom, San Francisco.

8. Farm. Having your baby nursed or farmed out – cared for by other people, 24/7 – was a pretty common option in nineteenth-century cities. For some mothers, whose access to accommodation or work might depend on not having a child on their hands, it was the only realistic option, short of surrendering their parental rights at a municipal orphanage where the death rates were staggeringly high anyway. Frog Music explores the psychology as well as the practicalities of baby farming; the shifting terms of that bargain.

9. Nature. I knew from the start that this would be an urban story about the murder of a young woman – a shepherd turned frog-catcher – who loved to escape from the city and spend days on end wading through the swamps and pools of San Francisco’s hinterland. What did nature offer Jenny Bonnet that her culture couldn’t? What about her own ‘nature’, her eccentric and rebellious character, sent her off to the hills, but drew her back to the bars again?

Frogs in Blank Space by Lee Nachtigal
Frogs in Blank Space by Lee Nachtigal /

10. Frogs. Frog Music is named for the French in San Francisco, but also for the amphibious creatures that gave the French that nickname (derived from frog-eaters). Newspaper articles about Bonnet’s death often called her the ‘Little Frog Catcher’ or ‘French Frog Girl’, as if she owed some of her playful, slippery traits to the creatures she supplied to the restaurant trade. ‘Frog music’ is my invented term for the lustful, urgent sounds made by a chorus of frogs in the mating season. The novel is all about the basic – base – urges and drives we share with our fellow creatures.

Here's Khristine Hvam reading from the novel that relies on all these words – enjoy!