History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

02 October 2006

One of the Top Ten

"I was nine years old when I first saw Burghley. We arrived in the dark of an October evening and all I could see of the house was the silhouette of the chimneys and turrets against the sky. But the flaring gas lights at the drive entrance brought home an important fact; in 1956 Burghley still had no electricity. – the opening paragraph from "Life at Burghley"

This book is a treasure. If I could only keep ten of my research books, Life at Burghley by Lady Victoria Leatham would be one of them. A measly 236 pages in a standard hardback side, each section is filled with inspirations for a dozen novels.

The servants come first and a colorful lot they are. The lady’s maid who was once “quality” and fond of gin (Gordons), the butler who would shout at any family member who trespassed into the servants quarters and Jim Curtis, a butler of the mid twentieth century. His “beautiful legs” looked splendid on the running board of the coach that was still occasionally used.

Pick one, any one, and let your imagination run wild. When you are tired of that take a look at the Cecil family.

Sir William Cecil (1520-1598) is recognized as the most successful spymaster ever to serve on Britain’s behalf.

The fifth Earl of Exeter (1648-1700) loved travel and went abroad more than a dozen times to buy art. His bedroom décor included a “shocking” number of paintings of naked women.

Brownlow Cecil, the ninth Earl (1725-1793) was so afraid of being buried alive he ordered that
he lie in his open coffin until his body began “to show signs of mortification.”

As a young man, the First Marquess (1754-1804) ran away from home, met and married Sarah Hoggins despite the fact he already had a wife.

David Cecil, the 6th Marquess of Exeter (the author’s father) competed in the 1932 Olympics. A version of his story is told in the movie "Chariots of Fire."

After making your way through the people who lived at Burghley, you are left with the house itself, the most amazing “character" of all. Lady Victoria takes the reader on one of the best “tours by book” I have ever read. The roofs were used as walkways from its earliest construction, since the paths there were more private than anywhere inside. The area included turrets called “Banketting Houses,” spaces perfect for escaping rain or meeting a lover. I so want to see the roof, more than the state rooms, the enormous kitchen or the fabulous Heaven Room, its soaring walls completely covered with murals by Verrio.

It took thirty years to build the first phase of Burghley in the 16th century, and almost that long to reclaim it in the 20th. It stands with Petworth and Blenheim as one of the greatest of the Great Houses. If a trip to England is not on your list anytime soon, find this book and imagine.

Architecture is one of my great interests, of the Regency or any other era. Whether writing contemporaries or historicals, I spend an inordinate amount of time figuring out where and how my characters live down to design details no reader will ever see. Nothing I have ever imagined comes close to the grandeur of Burhgley. Leatham’s book is one of my research keepers, no doubt about that, and the first book I loan to anyone interested in writing historicals. Would you care to share one of your favorite research books?



Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Ohmigosh, Mary, I'm all shivery. I have to have that book!

7:36 AM  
Blogger Connie Brockway said...

Oh, that sounds absolutely fabulous. I lve the idea of a gin-guzzling lady's maid heroine from "quality."

You all have way too many books for me to buy and I love the discussions. I'll be back often to steal, er, borrow idea sources!

Connie Brockway

7:39 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I love that first paragraph, Mary -- after such a hook for an opening line, how could one put it down?

10:30 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Ooooo, favorite books . . . if we're talking about architecture I'm excedingly fond of HISTORIC INTERIORS (isbn 0-8109-6388-4). It covers a wide variety of rooms and a wide range of periods.

I love stuff about particular houses, too, but this one is a good basic book from which to invision grand homes of my own creation.

9:34 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Does it have photos, Kalen? Or drawings? How is it set up?

10:22 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

It's broken down by room, and yeah, it's 90% photos. There are sections on stairs, entrance halls, bedrooms, etc. It's not a large book, but it's a good one.

8:35 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

The book I couldn't do without is a work of literary history and criticism, THE COUNTRY AND THE CITY, by Raymond Williams. It's a very opinionated, sometimes very angry, profoundly learned discussion of British social history of several centuries of commentary on the contrasting values and virtues of country and city life.

Part of the reason it's so useful to me is that its discussion is so germane to the way regency novels often take place both in London and on country estates.

It's a 2-step process from lit crit to historical actuality, but I love following out Williams' sources, like 19th century journalist William Cobbett.

11:46 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Okay, I gotta have that book, Mary. I don't write in that time period, but that's the kind of book I would sit down and read just 'cuz!


3:22 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Yeah, this is why Pam's the smart one. *GRIN*

3:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great suggestion...I just went to amazon to get the book!

4:09 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

thanks, Kalen... while I quake in my boots re how to get my pix up for Friday.

5:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now you see I had an ulterior motive with my first post. Two new books on my 'must have' list. What a great group this to work with and learn from. I know we would welcome sugestions from others as well.

9:55 PM  

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