History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

28 June 2015

26 June 2015

I’m an historical novelist and an historian by training, but sometimes it’s hard to recognized major historical events when one is actually living through them. Sometimes the significance of events only becomes clear in retrospect, set off by developments before and after. But others are immediately clear. When I got up the morning of 26 June and saw that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in favor of marriage equality through out the country, it was clear it was clear we were living through something that would be remembered in history books.

I thought about friends of my parents for whom marriage seemed only a distant, theoretical possibility. I thought about friends of mine who have got married in recent years. Several people I know said a few years ago that while they thought marriage equality was important to fight for they didn’t think they wanted to get married themselves to their longtime partners. But in the last year several of them decided to get married and said afterwards they were surprised at how significant it felt.

And then I thought about two of the ongoing characters in my series, Simon Tanner and David Mallinson, Viscount Worsley. David, a Member of Parliament, and Simon, a playwright known for his Radical views, have been lovers since they met at Oxford and share rooms in the Albany. They are closer, Suzanne Rannoch thinks in the series, than many married couples she knows. Closer in many ways than Suzanne and her husband Malcolm who married for reasons on necessity and convenience. But officially, to most of the outside world, David and Simon have to preserve the fiction that they are just friends who share lodgings. David, the heir to an earldom, is under considerable pressure from his family to marry and produce an heir. His family is willing to turn a blind eye to what he does after and he could probably find a wife who was as well, but neither he nor Simon could stomach being part of such a deception.

In my WIP, David, who rarely speaks about his feelings, confides in his friend Malcolm Rannoch with unaccustomed bitterness.

“A few of our friends accept us. Others—notably my parents—choose to be blind to what’s in front of them. Some others really are blind I suppose, or simply don’t have the imagination to see it.” He poured more whisky into Malcolm’s glass. “But still others are only too ready to gossip. And many to condemn.”

Malcolm looked at his friend, his chief confidant since they’d both been schoolboys Teddy’s age. He had shared things with David he hadn’t even shared with Suzanne. And yet— “You don’t talk this way often.”

David shrugged as he clunked down the decanter. “Nothing to be gained by dwelling. But it’s still a hanging offense.”

Not only does marriage to each other seem as out of reach as the moon to David and Simon, their very relationship is considered a capital crime. “Buggery” had been a capital crime going back to the days of Henry VIII. Jeremy Bentham argued for decriminalizing “sodomy” in a 1785 essay called Offenses Against Oneself.  But the death penalty for “buggery” wasn’t abolished until 1861 while various laws against same gender sex continued until late in the 20th century with horrifying notable examples such as Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing and many, many others less known but equally tragic. It wasn’t until 2001 that the age of consent was made the same for men and women and that laws against group same sex sex were decriminalized. Same sex marriage became legal in England and Wales in 2014.

On Friday I wanted to explain to my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Mélanie that this was an important day, that our country had become a more equal place, but it occurred to me that she has no idea that there were ever prohibitions on men marrying men and women marrying women. In fact the first time she helped me buy a wedding present it was for two of her honorary uncles. Some day, before too long, we’ll talk about it, and I’ll show her the pictures I took on 26 June of San Francisco City Hall and the War Memorial Opera House lit up in rainbow lights. But for right now, I like the fact that to her marriage is and always has been something between two people who love each other regardless of gender.

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16 June 2015

Travels in England, 1782: Westminster Abbey

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 “On a very gloomy dismal day, just such a one as it ought to be, I went to see Westminster Abbey.

I entered at a small door, which brought me immediately to the poets’ corner, where the monuments and busts of the principal poets, artists, generals, and great men, are placed.

Not far from the door, immediately on my entrance, I perceived the statue of Shakespeare, as large as life; with a band, &c., in the dress usual in his time.

A passage out of one of Shakespeare’s own plays (the Tempest), in which he describes in the most solemn and affecting manner, the end, or the dissolution of all things, is here, with great propriety, put up as his epitaph; as though none but Shakespeare could do justice to Shakespeare.

Not far from this immortal bard is Rowe’s monument, which, as it is intimated in the few lines that are inscribed as his epitaph, he himself had desired to be placed there.

At no great distance I saw the bust of that amiable writer, Goldsmith: to whom, as well as to Butler, whose monument is in a distant part of the abbey, though they had scarcely necessary bread to eat during their life time, handsome monuments are now raised.  Here, too you see, almost in a row, the monuments of Milton, Dryden, Gay, and Thomson.  The inscription on Gay’s tombstone is, if not actually immoral, yet futile and weak; though he is said to have written it himself:

“Life is a jest, and all things shew it,
‘I thought so once but now I know it.”

Our Handel has also a monument here, where he is represented as large as life.

An actress, Pritchard, and Booth, an actor, have also very distinguished monuments erected here to their memories.

For Newton, as was proper, there is a very costly one.  It is above, at the entrance of the choir, and exactly opposite to this, at the end of the church, another is erected, which refers you to the former.

As I passed along the side walls of Westminster Abbey, I hardly saw any thing but marble monuments of great admirals, but which were all too much loaded with finery and ornaments, to make on me at least, the intended impression.

I always returned with most pleasure to the poets’ corner, where the most sensible, most able, and most learned men, of the different ages, were re-assembled; and particularly where the elegant simplicity of the monuments made an elevated and affecting impression on the mind, while a perfect recollection of some favourite passage, of a Shakespeare, or Milton, recurred to my idea, and seemed for a moment to re-animate and bring back the spirits of those truly great men.

Of Addison and Pope I have found no monuments here.  The vaults where the kings are buried, and some other things worth notice in the abbey, I have not yet seen; but perhaps I may at my return to London from the country.”

31 May 2015

The Mayfair Affair & the plight of governesses

This weekend, I had the fun of doing an event for The Mayfair Affair, the latest book in my Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch series of Regency historical mysteries, at the wonderful book store Book Passage. As I said in my talk, The Mayfair Affair is a book I've looked forwards to writing for a long time. I knew one of the minor characters was going to take center stage. Laura Dudley, governess to Malcolm and Suzanne's two young children, Colin and Jessica, has been in the background of the series for several books, just as governesses often existed in a sort of twilight zone in upper class households.

Governesses needed to be educated and were often impoverished gentlewomen who had to make their own way in the world, no easy task for single women in the 19th century. Perhaps the dowerless daughter of a clergyman. They were considered a social step above the other servants but not precisely equal to the family. They would take their meals with the children. They might bring the children into the drawing room after dinner or when the parents entertained. They were expected to socially presentable and might even socialize some with the guests. More than one governess became entangled with an elder brother down from Oxford or a family friend or even the father of her charges. But, Jane Eyre not withstanding, such entanglements were unlikely to lead the marriage. Even a whisper of scandal could lead to a governess being dismissed without a reference. So governesses tended to be careful of their reputation which often meant keeping to themselves for self-preservation.

Malcolm and Suzanne are enlightened employers who see Laura as one of the family. But they are also careful of her privacy. So when Laura is accused of the murder of the powerful Duke of Trenchard, they realize they don't really know her. And yet they are convinced she must be innocent. Because, as Suzanne tells Malcolm, she can't accept that someone she trusted with her children could be capable of cold-blooded murder.

That was when I realized that Laura Dudley's story, which in many ways is rooted in the plight of governesses in the early 19th century, also has very contemporary implications. I feel those implications every time I leave my three-year-old daughter Mélanie with a new nanny. I'm very fortunate to be able to be with Mélanie most of the time and to have wonderful nannies and babysitters to watch her when I'm not. But it's hard not to be a touch nervous when I leave her with someone new. I tell myself I have good instincts, just as Suzanne and Malcolm do, that I would know if someone wasn't to be trusted. And yet...  It takes a lot of trust, to leave one's child with someone.

At the same time, it's very easy to bond with someone who who is helping care for your children. Even if you don't spend a lot of time with that person yourself, there's something very intimate about sharing the care of children. And there's nothing like the gratitude you can feel for someone who bonds with your children and makes them happy and secure. Suzanne and Malcolm feel that gratitude toward Laura and that shared bond with her. And yet, as they begin to investigate the Duke of Trenchard's murder to clear her name, they realize she is harboring more than one secret. Unraveling those secrets was a lot of the fun of writing the book.

What are your favorite books involving governesses and nannies? Do you think about the contemporary parallels when reading or writing about historical characters who care for children?

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25 May 2015

A Rose By Any Other Name (revisited)

Rose Lerner has a great name post over on Risky Regencies, so I thought I'd repost mine today as an additional resourse.

One of the things writers always seem to be discussing is names. Especially historical writers, but I think this applies equally across the board. You want your characters to have distinct and appropriate names, but when you’re writing an historical novel you don’t want to have Princess Brandi tramping about. I keep lists of names that I run across in historical documents, in non-fiction books about my period, etc.

Recently, prompted by a question on a discussion loop that I’m on I made a list of all the names in Who's Who in Late Hanoverian Britain and my 1779 edition of the Peerage. Mostly the same names show up over and over and over:







Then we have a few names, which while no where near as popular as those above, still show up quite a bit:









Then there are a smattering of names that still seem "normal", but show up only once or twice:














And then there are the fun ones, many of which seem like surnames used as first names to me:














Anne-Holles (!) yes, first name for a man




I’d guess that the vast majority of the writers I know are choosing names from this third set. As readers how do you feel about names? Do you care if half the heroes are named Henry or Thomas (as they probably would have been in real life), or do you like our penchant for the unusual?

Which of these two statements sums up your feeling:

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet?

A rose by any other name would wither and die?

03 May 2015

Dolls & Storytelling


Recently my daughter Mélanie and I were at the Stanford mall, passing some time before heading to a party nearby. I worked in a café for a while, then we decided to walk around. We passed by the America Girl Doll store which I’ve been resisting visiting, both there and our recent visit to New York, mostly because I was afraid *I* would want to buy everything in the store. But the afternoon was warm, the store was right there, air conditioned and inviting. I asked Mel if she wanted to go in.  She did.

Mélanie has three Götz dolls from Pottery Barn Kids, which are the same size as the American Girl dolls. We had one of them with us that day, Laura. ( Mélanie still lets me name most of her toys. Usually I resort of literary characters, my own or others. Laura is name for Laura Dudley, governess to the Rannoch children in my series and a central character in my forthcoming The Mayfair Affair).  One of the American Girl dolls is from 1812. I couldn’t resist her fabulous collection of Regency clothes. Fortunately, Mélanie was excited when i asked her if she wanted to pick out an outfit for Laura “like the clothes in Mummy’s books.” (I’m not sure what I’d have done if instead she’d asked for an outfit from the 1970s :-). Mélanie selected the pelisse and hat above. Which is perfect, because in The Mayfair Affair Laura Dudley wears a dark blue pelisse trimmed with black braid. Laura Dudley is titian-haired and considerably older (35) than Laura the doll, but above is a glimpse of an ensemble not too far off from what she wears in the book.

We wandered through the rest of the store, drinking in the detailed worlds. In addition to dolls and doll clothes, there were several rooms or other settings to go with different dolls, including a beautifully detailed Regency era parlor. Before we left, I checked the price, so I’d know if it was possibility for a birthday or Christmas. Only to find it was well over half off. Which meant it was affordable and most likely discontinued. 

Needless to say, we left with the parlor. I was going to keep it for the next gift occasion. But when we got home from the party and Mélanie was asleep, I couldn’t resist setting it up. And then I couldn’t deists keeping it up, Mélanie loves it. It’s better than doll house because she can sit down in it herself and play so that ti’s almost like a playhouse. I can envision scenes from my books happening within those pale blue walls. It’s funny, in The Mayfair Affair several of the rooms in different houses are blue; I was actually going to change some, until I decided it was a nice commentary that the color runs through the lives of different characters, in difference social classes. It seems to go with the period.

When I posted about Laura’s pelisse on my own website, I learned that several readers of my books also love dolls. A lively and fascinating discussion ensued. Perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that people who like historical fiction would also like dolls, particularly period dolls. I loved acting out stories with my dolls when I was little. I often think that I do the same thing now, I just write stories down (and now that I’m, a mummy i get to act them out with dolls as well :-).

Are you a doll enthusiast? Readers, do you connect it to your love of period fiction? Writers, have you ever found inspiration from dolls and doll furniture and accessories?

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28 April 2015

Travels in England, 1782: St. Paul's

First I must apologize for missing last week's post. I had some real life drama (not personal, but bad stuff for a good friend) that got in my way and then I go horribly sick.

Today we follow Herr Moritz to St. Paul's Cathedral, which he does not seem to like at all, but the view from the dome is apparently not to be missed. What a wonderful excursion that would make for a  hero and heroine ...

"I must own that on my entrance into this massy building, an uncommon vacancy, which seemed to reign in it, rather damped than raised an impression of anything majestic in me.  All around me I could see nothing but immense bare walls and pillars.  Above me, at an astonishing height, was the vaulted stone roof; and beneath me a plain, flat even floor, paved with marble.  No altar was to be seen, or any other sign that this was a place where mankind assembled to adore the Almighty.  For the church itself, or properly that part of it where they perform divine service, seems as it were a piece stuck on or added to the main edifice, and is separated from the large round empty space by an iron gate, or door.  Did the great architects who adopted this style of building mean by this to say that such a temple is most proper for the adoration of the Almighty?  If this was their aim, I can only say I admire the great temple of nature, the azure vaulted sky, and the green carpet with which the earth is spread.  This is truly a large temple; but then there is in it no void, no spot unappropriated, or unfulfilled, but everywhere proofs in abundance of the presence of the Almighty.  If, however, mankind, in their honest ambition to worship the great God of nature, in a style not wholly unsuitable to the great object of their reverence, and in their humble efforts at magnificence, aim in some degree to rival the magnificence of nature, particular pains should be taken to hit on something that might atone for the unavoidable loss of the animation and ampleness of nature; something in short that should clearly indicate the true and appropriated design and purpose of such a building.  If, on the other hand, I could be contented to consider St. Paul’s merely as a work of art, built as if merely to show the amazing extent of human powers, I should certainly gaze at it with admiration and astonishment, but then I wish rather to contemplate it with awe and veneration.  But, I perceive, I am wandering out of my way.  St. Paul’s is here, as it is, a noble pile, and not unworthy of this great nation.  And even if I were sure that I could, you would hardly thank me for showing you how it might have been still more worthy of this intelligent people.  I make a conscience however of telling you always, with fidelity, what impression everything I see or hear makes on me at the time.  For a small sum of money I was conducted all over the church by a man whose office it seemed to be, and he repeated to me, I dare say, exactly his lesson, which no doubt he has perfectly got by rote: of how many feet long and broad it was; how many years it was in building, and in what year built.  Much of this rigmarole story, which, like a parrot, he repeated mechanically, I could willingly have dispensed with.  In the part that was separated from the rest by the iron gate above mentioned, was what I call the church itself; furnished with benches, pews, pulpit, and an altar; and on each side seats for the choristers, as there are in our cathedrals.  This church seemed to have been built purposely in such a way, that the bishop, or dean, or dignitary, who should preach there, might not be obliged to strain his voice too much.  I was now conducted to that part which is called the whispering gallery, which is a circumference of prodigious extent, just below the cupola.  Here I was directed to place myself in a part of it directly opposite to my conductor, on the other side of the gallery, so that we had the whole breadth of the church between us, and here as I stood, he, knowing his cue no doubt, flung to the door with all his force, which gave a sound that I could compare to nothing less than a peal of thunder.  I was next desired to apply my ear to the wall, which, when I did, I heard the words of my conductor: “Can you hear me?” which he softly whispered quite on the other side, as plain and as loud as one commonly speaks to a deaf person.  This scheme to condense and invigorate sound at so great a distance is really wonderful.  I once noticed some sound of the same sort in the senatorial cellar at Bremen; but neither that, nor I believe any other in the world, can pretend to come in competition with this.

I now ascended several steps to the great gallery, which runs on the outside of the great dome, and here I remained nearly two hours, as I could hardly, in less time, satisfy myself with the prospect of the various interesting objects that lay all round me, and which can no where be better seen, than from hence.

Every view, and every object I studied attentively, by viewing them again and again on every side, for I was anxious to make a lasting impression of it on my imagination.

Below me lay steeples, houses, and palaces in countless numbers; the squares with their grass plots in their middle that lay agreeably dispersed and intermixed, with all the huge clusters of buildings, forming meanwhile a pleasing contrast, and a relief to the jaded eye.

At one end rose the Tower - itself a city - with a wood of masts behind it; and at the other Westminster Abbey with its steeples.  There I beheld, clad in smiles, those beautiful green hills that skirt the environs of Paddington and Islington; here, on the opposite bank of the Thames, lay Southwark; the city itself it seems to be impossible for any eye to take in entirely, for with all my pains I found it impossible to ascertain either where it ended, or where the circumjacent villages began; far as the eye could reach, it seemed to be all one continued chain of buildings.

I well remember how large I thought Berlin when first I saw it from the steeple of St. Mary, and from the Temple Yard Hills, but how did it now sink and fall in my imagination, when I compared it with London!

It is, however, idle and vain to attempt giving you in words, any description, however faint and imperfect, of such a prospect as I have just been viewing.  He who wishes at one view to see a world in miniature, must come to the dome of St Paul’s."

13 April 2015

WOLF HALL -- From the Page to the Stage -- and Screen

I was an early adapter (as they say in the tech world) of WOLF HALL, In fact, back in 2010, Hilary Mantel's publicist sent me a letter asking if I would review the novel for my blog. I rarely posted to my blog at the time, being a busy author myself, and I told Ms. Mantel's publicist that as a fellow author I felt uncomfortable about giving a review of a colleague's work. However, because I had indeed written about Henry VIII and his many love affairs and marriages in my nonfiction books ROYAL AFFAIRS  and NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES (which is why they wanted me to review WOLF HALL in the first place, I told the publicist that I would be delighted to read the novel and if I loved it, I would be certain to write about why I loved it, and let all my readers and colleagues know that.

P.S.: I loved it and did end up writing a blog post that was more or less in the form of a rave review. I adore voice-y fiction and Mantel has one helluvan author's voice. Many like it; many don't, but I'm one who does. I'm not personally fond of Thomas Cromwell the man, but as someone who writes about history's "bad girls" -- women who have gotten a bad reputation most often from centuries of propaganda delivered to us as truth instead, I'm fascinated by the choice of Cromwell as protagonist and grateful to see the Tudors through eyes other than one of Anne Boleyn's handmaidens for a change.

The prose is meaty and muscular, gristly at times, but delicious.

And I enjoyed Ms. Mantel's second novel in the trilogy, BRING UP THE BODIES as well. By then I found it a quicker read than WOLF HALL and the minor quibble I'd had about the first novel (the same minor quibble shared by hundreds of others, evidently -- namely that of applying the pronoun "him" every time she referred to Thomas Cromwell when there were so many other males in the room often created confusion) had been pretty much resolved.

So, what would happen, I wondered, when Ms. Mantel's novels, which for the most part are faithful to the historical record -- except for my other minor quibble -- when she does not need to stray into Philippa Gregory territory to make things up (like attributing Henry's sons to Mary Boleyn, which (a) is not true and (b) he got a perfectly good one off another royal mistress Bessie Blount) were translated to the stage--and then be transformed into a BBC miniseries? Would the author's voice get lost as is so often the case with that other oft-adapted author Jane Austen?

I am SO glad to have seen the Broadway plays before I saw the first part of the bloated and miscast miniseries. Oh, did I tip my hand too much just now? For the Broadway/Royal Shakespeare Company production (presented in 2 parts as 2 separate plays: Part 1 is WOLF HALL and Part 2 is BRING UP THE BODIES -- both titled for ease of comprehension as WOLF HALL) is everything the miniseries should be. It is brilliantly cast. The pacing is swift and sure. Each play is nearly 3 hours with an intermission. And the first play, in particular speeds by. There are pacing issues with the lumbering first act of the second play. Too much exposition. Replacing the author's voice on the page (in the stage play) are humor and wit. Just enough. In the right places. The plays are by no means comedies. But life is a human comedy. And we are witnessing whip-smart people.

Many of the same lines in the mouths of the miscast actors in the miniseries fall flat. I found the teleplay to be utterly humorless. The first episode flatlined for me. While I sat in my seat at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway and couldn't wait for more, and leapt to my feet for each curtain call in what is truly an ensemble cast, I nearly fell asleep during the droning delivery of the actors on television.

How could the same material be presented in two such different iterations -- one so lively and one so dull? The stage set for the theatrical event is big and gray. The miniseries takes you into a zillion Tudor-esque locations, so faithful to what we imagine the originals must have been -- and yet that version is the least interesting!  On Broadway, even though the actor playing Henry (Nathaniel Parker) has a dark beard, he is a tall man (and his costume is increasingly padded as time goes on). When he thunders, you quake in your boots. When he smiles you melt. When he dances (as in the opening of the play), you want to take your clothes off and throw yourself at him. THAT is Henry VIII in his prime. Not the small voiced, mewling guy, redbearded though he is, in the miniseries. A small performance that wouldn't frighten (nor seduce) anyone, nor is he, like the Broadway Henry -- a worthy adversary for Cromwell, who on Broadway has every other line, and is probably way too charismatic -- but that's Ms. Mantell's Cromwell, and she co-wrote the plays, so it's her prerogative.

Perhaps therein lies the vast discrepancy between the stage and screen versions. Ms. Mantel ultimately had a vast deal of input into the scripts for the stage. Whoever wrote the teleplays was trying so hard to be earnest and faithful to the novels that the production became a crashing bore.

And the novels -- and the stage adaptations -- are anything but boring.

As I saw the Broadway plays in previews. Ms. Mantel herself was there. She signed my Playbill. I congratulated her on another great success but afterwards I wished I could have given her a note: I would have liked to have seen more of Anne Boleyn's vulnerability. I felt she was a little too one-note shrewish throughout the 2 plays. I wanted to see more of what made Henry fall in love with her and be willing to wait 7 precious years for her.

Have you read WOLF HALL and/or BRING UP THE BODIES? What was your impression? Have you seen either the Broadway/RSC productions or the miniseries? Care to compare and contrast your opinon of them to the novels?

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