History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

09 February 2016

Wellington, Waterloo, Apsley House, & historical liberties

Historical novelists always to a certain degree combine fact and fiction because we fill in gaps in the historical record. This is even more true when one writes novels such as I do with fictional main characters and real historical figures in major supporting roles, one inevitably combines historical events with fictional ones. I try to stick closely to the historical record, but of course I end up taking some liberties with it whether it's Lady Caroline Lamb a childhood friend of one of my fictional characters who of course she never new, putting Lord and Lady Castlereagh at a fictional ball they of course wouldn’t have attended, or having Castlereagh, Wellington and Sir Charles Stuart preoccupied with the intrigue surrounding the death of the fictional Antoine Rivère in post-Waterloo Paris.

With London Gambit, my latest Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch historical mystery, which I just finished, I faced a dilemma. The timeline of the series naturally put the book in June 1818, three years after Waterloo. Perhaps because I was subconsciously aware of this, echoes of the battle reverberate through the book. I needed a major social event for the denouement of the book, and I really wanted it to revolve round the anniversary of Waterloo on 18 June. I knew from a research visit to Wellington’s London home, Apsley House, that Wellington had given banquets for Waterloo veterans on the anniversary of the battle.

Apsley House  (which stands on the edge of Hyde Park at Hyde Park Corner) was designed by Robert Adam and built in the 1770s for the second Earl of Bathurst (who had been Baron Apsley before he succeeded to the earldom). Wellington's brother Richard, Marquess Wellesley, purchased Apsley House in 1807 and engaged James Wyatt to improve it (with the assistance of Thomas Cundy). Though the grateful nation was offered to build Wellington a London home, Wellington instead bought Apsley House from his brother in 1817 (to help Richard out of financial difficulties). In 1818 Wellington engaged Benjamin Dean Wyatt, James Wyatt’s son, to make repairs to the house. Wyatt installed the nude statue of Napoleon by Antonio Canova, which Wellington had acquired, at the base of the stairs.

But Wellington was still British ambassador to France in 1818. He probably didn’t give his first banquet for Waterloo veterans at Apsley House until 1820, and the first of his banquets took place in a dining room that could only seat 35, so the guests were limited to senior officers. After the Waterloo Gallery was completed in 1830, up to 85 guests could attend, including guests who had not been present at the battle, but the guest list was limited to men. While I worked on the first draft of London Gambit, I danced round what to do with the Waterloo anniversary. I thought about having a fictional character give a dinner on 18 June. I even thought about having Wellington come over from Paris for the dinner. And then I thought—Wellington did own Apsley House in 1818. He could have given a dinner on the anniversary of Waterloo (even if in fact he did not). And, since the dinner in m book would be fictional, he could include women among the guests…

I debated some more, wrote it with Wellington giving the dinner at Apsley House, debating changing it in subsequent drafts. In the end I left it, with an historical note explaining the liberties I had taken. Reading over the galleys, I’m glad I did. The Waterloo anniversary ties the themes in the books together beautifully and having the event at Apsley House with Wellington present gives it added weight.

For more information about Apsley House and Wellington, the Victoria and Albert Museum offers an excellent publication book Apsley House: Wellington Museum (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2001).

Readers, how do you feel about writers taking liberties with the historical record? Writers, what liberties have you taken with historical figures, events, and timing?

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26 January 2016

Fun with Pronunciation

I know that even with familiar names, people often get wildly bizarre pronunciations and spellings (sparked by a twitter conversation I saw this morning that included even "Liz" somehow being misspelled). Without daring to broach the wilds of Welsh or Gaelic (my poor sister having explained till she’s blue in the face that “bh” is a “v” sound in Gaelic), I thought I’d spend a little time talking about some of the oddities the English have come up. Clearly it’s hard to argue that someone doesn’t know how to pronounce their own name . . . but sometimes it’s very hard not to do so (we are talking about a country where “breeches” is pronounced “britches” and “waistcoat” is “weskit”).

And of course I’m always drawn to these names for characters, simply because they’re so outrageous. LOL! To date, I’ve managed to restrain myself, but one of these days I’m going to break down and begin peopling my world with characters whose names can only be pronounced correctly with the aid of a diagram!

These are some of my favorite pronunciation aberrations (all double checked in the BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names) :

Cholmondeley = chum-li
Featherstonehaugh = fan-shaw
Foulkes = fauks
St Clare = sin-klair
St John = sin-jin
St Leger = sellin-jer (though not all the time)
St Maur = see-mor
Beauchamp = beech-am
Beauclerk = bo-klair
Berkeley/Berkely= bar-klee
Brough = bruff

Do you have any favorites to add? Do you like when books have strange names or does it make you long for a simple Richard Smith?

11 January 2016

Stepping into History at Rules Restaurant

Dinner at Rules after the opera at Covent Garden

Thanksgiving weekend, a friend watched my daughter while I went to the movies. This is rare for me these days - I love movies, but since my daughter was born I usually reserve nonwork babysitting for live performances. In fact the two movies I've seen without her have been the two most recent James Bond movies, Skyfall and, this November, Spectre.

I love spy stories of all types. I particularly love how the recent James Bond movies with Daniel Craig combine adventure with a quite nuanced look at the moral ambiguities of the spy game. As I sat happily engrossed in the movie, I was mentally finding parallels between James Bond's spy game and that played by my Regency-era protagonists Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch. And then the two worlds collided when Q and Moneypenny went to see M dining at Rules Restaurant.

Dinner after Spectre at the very California Farm Shop
I instantly recognized Rules from that opening shot, well before they left and camera caught the name on the door. On a trip to London I dined at Rules after a wonderful La Cenerentola at Covent Garden. It's not often a writer whose novels are set two hundred years ago dines at a restaurant where she can also set a scene in her books. Rules is the oldest restaurant in London. The restaurant, located in Maiden Lane in Covent Garden, appears to go back to Thomas Rule establishing an oyster house in 1798. You can read more of the history on the restaurant's website here.  Through it's two hundred year history, it has only been owned by three families. Just before World War I, Charles Rule, a descendant of Thomas, swapped businesses with Tom Bell, an Englishman who owned a Paris restaurant called the Alhambra. During World War II, Rules was reinforced with thick wood and only open from 1:00 - 3:00 pm. They could only offer rationed meals at 3 shillings but could offer profuse servings of rabbit, grouse, and pheasant, which were not rationed. In an era when many women stepped into what had been traditionally male jobs, they had a female head waiter. In 1984, Tom Bell's daughter sold the restaurant to John Mayhew, the present owner.

I recently rewatched season 5 of Downton Abbey to get ready for season 6 and noticed that Mary, Edith, Tom, and Rose have lunch at Rules just before Rose's wedding (it is there that Rose gets the set up pictures of her fiancé at his stag party). In my WIP, London Gambit (which just went off to the copy editor) one of the characters gives a supper party at Rules after his actress wife opens in a new production of Measure for Measure.

I highly recommend Rules if you're in London. I had a lovely meal there and the priceless experience of stepping into history - not to mention into one of my novels.

Have you eaten at Rules? Or other restaurants that figure in your favorite books?

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14 December 2015

Princesses & Castles & Gowns

This post concerns a somewhat different sort of history. Or different types of history. The make believe history of fairy tales and fantasy. The history of own childhood as we look back on it. And the history we build ourselves with moments that are perhaps only significant when we look back on them.

My daughter Mélanie turned four yesterday. Hard for me to believe four years have already gone by since she was born and also hard for me to remember a time when she wasn't part of my life. In the case of her (much-anticipated) birthday I was very much aware that this particular moment was one would both remember, hopefully fondly. Thankfully as she was falling asleep she told me "I had a nice birthday."

Her big present from me was a wooden castle. It goes with a coach she got last year, some dolls she already had, and a new set of Frozen dolls which fit the castle perfectly. By last night it was populated with even more dolls of different sizes exploring the rooms and acting out Mélanie's stories. I had a wooden castle growing up and some of the the earliest historical stories I made up were not written down but acted on on its battlements. I love watching Mélanie play in this make believe world and learn a few historical terms - battlements, portcullis, sceptre.

Her party had a pirate princess theme with her cake decorated with characters from Captain Jake & the Neverland Pirates (along with a favorite purple pony). Mélanie loves pirate stories, mostly at her age of the very lighthearted kind (including Pirates of Penznance). Another example of a sort of fantasy world with roots in real history. As is her love long, full-skirted dresses she can twirl in, tiaras, and sparkly jewelry.

I love watching her explore stories, and I particularly love when they touch on one of my great loves, history. For me, fairy tales and make believe were an early gateway into my eventual love of archives, Calendars of State Papers, and dusty trails of books too seldom read to be in the Stanford library's computer system. It will be interesting to see if Mélanie's interest in history grows. For now, I'm enjoying playing with her castle with her :-).

What started your love of history?

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01 December 2015

A Heyer Moive and a (new to me) Heyer Short Story

According to the BAFTA website, we might all finally be getting that Heyer movie we’ve all been begging for … maybe. The Grand Sophy has never been a personal favorite of mine. If one can get past the anti-Semitism (and I can) one is still left with a rather dreary romance between ill-suited people that I simply can’t see working out in the end. I give them three years before they’re estranged and living apart.


On top of my general “meh” about the chosen novel, there’s the past work of the people involved. The writer (Olivia Hetreed) was also responsible for the dismal Wuthering Heights of a few years back that currently has a meager 48% audience score over on Rotten Tomatoes. My local film critic, who I mostly tend to agree with, wrote: “Essentially a misunderstanding of (or an inability to convey) the breathing soul of this material.” This worries me. I’d honestly rather have no Heyer adaptation than one that I’m going to have to defend when it’s indefensible.


All of this was brought home by the very timely article in the Guardian about just what liberties it’s ok for a film to take with a beloved book (a topic which never seems to get old among fans of all stripes. Let me know what your feelings are about the possibility of The Grand Sophy on film and what book you would have chosen if you were in charge. Me? I would probably have chosen Sylvester, because I think it would translate well to film and it's one of the more humorous books in my opinion.

On a much happier note, I leave you with a link to a charming short story by Heyer that I had never encountered before last week: Pursuit. Thanks to Sasha/GrowlyCub for sharing it with me!

15 November 2015

Britain 1818


My recently released novella, Incident in Berkeley Square, takes place in late April 1818. The nxt full length novel in my Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch series, London Gambit, which will be out in May 2016, takes place in June of 1818. In both stories, danger and intrigue find their way into the secure Mayfair world where Malcolm and Suzanne have found a haven after the Napoleonic Wars. Beyond their jewel box of a house and leafy plane trees of the Berkeley Square garden, Britain is not a very settled place either.

Waterloo is only three years in the past. Napoleon has been defeated and exiled to the tiny island of St. Helena, but the ruling powers from Whitehall to Paris to Moscow still fear he could escape. In France, a restored Bourbon King is on the throne, and the “Ultra Royalist” faction is eager exact revenge for everything since the Revolution. Their zeal has brought about the “White Terror” in which scores of former Bonpartists have been imprisoned and executed. In this fevered atmosphere, political games are played for life and death stakes and personal loyalty is an ephemeral thing. The Come de Flahaut, a real historical figure who plays an important role in Incident in Berkeley Square and returns in London Gambit, is fortunate to have escaped France. Flahaut was an officer in Napoleon’s army and the lover of the Empress Josephine’s daughter, Hortense. He is also the illegitimate son of Talleyrand, Napoleon’s wily one-time Foreign Minister (a mentor of Malcom Rannoch's who has also appeared in the series. Talleyrand has managed to survive under the Bourbons and helped protect Flahaut. Flahaut has sought refuge in Britain and married the Scottish heiress Margaret Mercer Elphinstone in the teeth of her father's objections. His former lover Hortense Bonaparte is also exiled from France, living in Switzerland with her two young sons. Hortense and the Bonaparte family have past ties to Suzanne Rannoch.

While the British Government still worries about Bonapartist plots, the situation in Britain itself is far form easy. The Napoleonic Wars left Britain badly in debt. With the end of the war, the British Government is no longer pouring money into munitions and supplies for the Army. Without Government contracts, the textile mills that made uniforms and the iron foundries that made cannon have cut back on workers (and changes in manufacturing had already made jobs scarce). At the same time, former soldiers are flooding the job market. Work is scarce and the price of food is exorbitant. With the Government no longer buying food for the Army and foreign grain markets opening up, the price of corn (wheat) dropped. But Parliament used the Corn Laws to protect the price of homegrown corn. This also protected the profits of the landowners who grew the corn (and who had already benefited greatly from the high corn prices during the war). But the unemployed factory worker or the discharged soldier returning from the Continent (possibly less than whole), faced high prices as well as dwindling income. Yet though the conditions are bleak in Britain ‘s industrial towns, the rural poor keep leaving the countryside and pouring into the cities.

The Tory government (Lord Liverpool the Prime Minister, Lord Sidmouth the Home Secretary, Lord Castlereagh the Foreign Secretary, among others) have a pervasive fear of violent revolution at home. (Echoes of the French Revolution reverberate through the politics of the day). At the same time, the Government Ministers fear Parliamentary reform and see repression rather than any sort of reform as the best way of preserving the world as they know it.

In 1817 a crowd surrounded the Prince Regent’s carriage as he drove to open Parliament. Someone threw rocks at him or possibly fired an airgun. As J.B. Priestley writes in The Prince of Pleasure, “The Regent may or may not have felt panic-stricken–if there is evidence either way, I have not found it–but Lord Liverpool’s government soon behaved as if there had been barricades in St James’s Street and the rattle of musketry along Piccadilly. They may have been genuinely alarmed or they may have seized upon a good excuse to be repressive, but what is certain is that they rushed through a number of deplorable measures, which could hardly have been worse if half the towns in England had been in flames.”

Habeas Corpus was suspended. Based on an act from the days of Edward III, magistrates were given the power to imprison anyone they thought likely to behave in a way that threatened public order (a wide definition, which could end in someone being thrown in prison for making a face at a person of higher social status). Protesting any of this in person or in writing was made difficult by acts against Seditious Libel and an act that prohibited meetings of more than fifty within a mile of Parliament at Westminster Hall.

While the Government feared revolution, they recognized that events such as the mob surrounding the Prince Regent helped pave the way for repressive measures. They also realized that revolutionary talk, violent acts, and rioting were an effective way to separate moderate radicals and reform-minded Whigs from their more extreme fellows. With this end in mind, the Government, particularly Lord Sidmouth, employed agents provocateurs, who infiltrated radical groups and not only reported back to Westminster but actually incited violent action.

Though Malcolm and Suzanne's lives are seemingly more settled after the war, their story now unfolds against this backdrop, in a city seething with suppressed unrest, teetering on a knife edge between reaction and reform. At heart Suzanne, a former Bonapartist agent, is still a revolutionary (and now free to voice her opinions to her husband) while Malcolm, however reform-minded, is still a member of the aristocracy.  Which means that though they may have battlefields and council chambers of the Continent for the ballrooms and alleys of London, there is still plenty of intrigue in their lives.

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19 October 2015

Scenes from Berkeley Square

Incident in Berkeley Square, a novella in my Malcolm & Suzanne Rannoch historical mystery series, comes out on November 2nd. When I sat down to plan it, I realized that though my books are filled with scenes at balls, concerts, masquerades, and other entertainments and though Suzanne is known as a hostess, I hadn't written a scene of the Rannochs entertaining. So Incident in Berkeley Square is new territory for the series in that it is almost entirely set during a ball Suzanne and Malcolm are hosting. It is also new territory for the Rannoch, in that it's the first ball they have hosted since former British agent Malcolm learned his wife Suzanne used to be a French agent and married him to spy for the other side.

The Berkeley Square garden where the Rannoch children play

When I began the series, I planned for them to live in South Audley Street. But on a research trip to London I fell in love with the beauty of Berkeley, and realized how rare is, even in Mayfair, to have a house that looks out on leafy greenery rather than across a comparatively narrow street at someone else's windows. What a wonderful place for Rannochs to raise their children. Which is also what Malcolm thinks in the series, when he inherits the house and decides to brave the ghosts of his past by moving into the house he inherited from his parents. By remaking the house (which Suzanne remodels) and raising their own children there, Malcolm hopes to replace the unhappy memories of his childhood with more positive memories.
The house that is my image for Malcolm & Suzanne's house

I chose a house that is my image for the Rannoch house. The last time I was in London, I went to Berkeley Square and sat there at twilight, drinking in the setting. The square has inspired many scenes in the series and given a shape to the Rannoch family life, from the children playing in the square to Malcolm and Suzanne returning in the middle of the night from a mission and evading questions for the nightwatchman. Incident in Berkeley Square (where an unexpected visit from friends from the spy game disrupts the ball) adds new textures to the Rannochs' life in the square.

The square at twilight, about the time Suzanne and Malcolm's ball would be starting

What settings do you associate most strongly with particular books? Writers, have you ever moved where you planned to have characters live because you visited a certain location that seemed right?

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