History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

07 May 2007

Beauty and the Bard

I'm so delighted to be a history hoyden!

I'm Amanda Elyot and I write historical fiction. (this is a photo of me in the Pump Room in Bath, during the Jane Austen festival there, where I went last year to do a reading & signing). Three of the four novels I've had published are first-person accounts of the life story of a famous woman. The first was Helen of Troy, my most recent release, TOO GREAT A LADY, is Emma Hamilton's (Nelson's mistress) story, and the manuscript I just turned in to my publisher, ALL FOR LOVE, is the story of Mary Robinson, 18th-century actress, royal mistress, courtesan, novelist, poetess, and feminist. Not all of my novels are set in the same era, but what they share in common is the story of a feisty woman (and usually a redhead) who beat the odds, and for a time, not only survived, but thrived, in a society that was dead set against her succeeding.

Outsiders interest me. I think a story is more compelling when the have-nots overcome adversity than when the privileged get what's coming to them anyway. I love the rich and mighty -- don't get me wrong -- but I want to throw an outsider into their midst and watch their reactions. And when most of it really happened, historically, it's gold to me.

Emma Hamilton (b. 1765), the lady in the seductive pose pictured above (from a portrait of her by Elisabeth Vigee-leBrun) was one such woman whose life is an almost perfect parabola (I remember those from eighth grade geometry class because I liked to draw, but I sucked at math). She starts with nothing, and gradually ascends until, at her zenith, she is married to His Majesty's ambassador to the court of Naples, involved in a passionate affair with the biggest hero of the day, and is influential in international diplomacy. Pretty good for a woman who was more or less illiterate until she was seventeen years old! From there, though, as people grow increasingly disgusted by all the PDAs she and Nelson have been sharing, things start descending fairly rapidly for Emma, until by the end of her life, at age 49, she had less than what she began with.

Mary Robinson, on the other hand (b. 1757), was a merchant's daughter and had a more or less middle class education, rare for girls of the era. Whereas Emma was street-smart, Mary was book-smart, a bluestocking; but being a brainiac didn't help much when it came to falling in love. Smart women, foolish choices. Speaking for myself, I've been there, too. Maybe that's one reason why I felt for Mary so much.

Mary Robinson

Recently I've become fascinated by the "what if" factor in historical fiction. What If -- two famous people who lived during the same era, crossed paths? What did they do when they met and how did they affect each other later in life? I'm not referring to fantasy fiction where, e.g. Attila the Hun and Jane Austen share a beer at Agincourt -- I'm talking about something that might actually have happened.

Here's an example. In doing research for a book proposal, I discovered that William Shakespeare and the famous Venetian courtesan Veronica Franco were "lost" at the same time during the 1580s, meaning that history can't account for their whereabouts for some of that time. So maybe they met ... I got to thinking. How else would Shakespeare have learned enough about Venice to write OTHELLO and THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. We know he was a plot thief.
Veronica Franco

So, what do readers, and other historical writers, think about the "what if"? Would it bother you to see, e.g., Franco and Shakespeare in a novel together, as long as it's something that might have actually occurred? When it comes to the genre of historical fiction, in the balance, do you prefer your history to be strictly by the book, or are you okay with putting a bit more weight in the fiction side of the scale?

P.S. I made a few mental notes on last night's BBC-America Beau Brummel production with James Purefoy. For some reason, fascinated as I was by the first scene of BB publicly dressing, it didn't seem accurate that a man who was famous for his sartorial fastidiousness would not wear anything (no linen of any kind) under his trousers. After all, there were no drycleaners then!

What I am relatively sure of is that the waltzes depicted were incorrect. The actors were doing the choreography of the classic Viennese waltz, which was introduced considerably later. They should have been dancing the early form of the waltz (which was just as scandalous, and which would have been period-accurate), where the dancers would have been hip to hip, rather than face to face, and their right hands would have been interlocking (holding hands) overhead, while their left arms encircled each other's waists. I performed this older version of the waltz in a play I did about a decade ago, and that's why the two waltz forms stick in my mind.

Other than that, I found the show quite entertaining. I enjoyed the exterior shots of what appeared to be Bath, but was amused that there never seemed to be anyone on the street who wasn't in the scene; I guess background extras weren't in the production budget!


Blogger Kimberly L said...

As long as the book is good I have no complaints at all.

5:54 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Oooooo, welcome, Amanda!!! It’s so nice to have you here. I LOVE your books. And I love the idea of Shakespeare and Franco. It's very Shakespeare in Love, which I adore (Top Stoppard is one of my gods). I don’t mind monkeying around with history, so long as there’s no claim of accuracy.

As for the Brummell pic, there were lots of problems. I’ll stick to the dressing stuff though (for now):

The shirt was wrong. Shirts don’t open all the way down the front. The one his servant Robinson is wearing is correct, though.

The braces are wrong. They have him in the Y-style ones that date to the 1850s. During this period he would have been in X-style ones.

The no underpants thing, however, is perfectly correct. The style for tightly fitted pantaloons that Brummell started grew out of his first wearing them while serving in the Prince’s regiment of cavalry (later to be known as hussars). These men were famous (infamous?) for wearing skin-tight, knit pantaloons with NOHTING under them (hence the nearly indecent display of the man’s “goods”).

8:08 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Kalen, thanks for clearing up Beau Brummel's underwear issue. I kept waiting for his tailor to ask him whether he dressed left or right. :)

I adore Tom Stoppard, too. I always thought that if I were ever lucky enough to have any of my historical fiction made into a movie, I would beg and plead with the money people to pleeeeeease hire Tom Stoppard to write the screenplay.

I keep imagining Veronica Franco showing Shakespeare the handkerchief that Michael Cassio brought to her, and Shakespeare remarking on how pristine the linen is -- how white -- and then asks Veronica how to say "white" in Italian. "Bianca," she says -- and that's how the courtesan in OTHELLO comes to be named Bianca. I love playing around like that.

9:01 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

There was a period in 1809, just before Lord Byron first sailed for Lisbon, when one might not have been able to account for Jane Austen's every move (she'd been shuttling around from relative to relative, and I wondered if she might not have been able to tell one brother she was with the other and vice versa). The title to this novella (which I decided I hadn't the skill, the knowledge -- or the guts -- to write) would have been "Why Her Sister Burned Her Letters".

Welcome Amanda! Wonderful to have you here.

9:34 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

You're so gonna write that book. LOL! Once you've got specific scenes in your head, you're doomed. *grin*

9:40 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Welcome Amanda!

I haven't finished watching Beau Brummell yet, but I was disturbed by the very modern feel of the editing. Did that bother anyone else? Also, I thought it was strange that he entered the prince's chambers with his hat and walking stick still in hand. Wouldn't someone have taken that at the door? Or were they too perfectly stylish to give up? ;')

Anyway, your books sound fantastic, Amanda! And this is my month off of writing, so I'll have to check them out. We love scandalous women here!

11:02 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Haven't seen Beau Brummell, but Vicki's comment reminds me of something that always confuses me. In period scenes, it seems that men always bring their top hats with them. Proust makes a big deal of this -- hats were on the floors next to the chairs -- and Proust knew these things, though from the other end of a century of dandies and of course from across the channel.

But it still seems weird to me. Any thoughts about guys and their top hats (or round hats, as I believe they were called)?

11:44 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Hats should have been left with the footman at the door. But in a smaller household where this was impracticle (like the Bennetts) it would make sense for the man to carry it with him and simply set it aside for the visit.

That's my 2-cents.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Welcome Amanda. I loved BY A LADY and will now hurry out and buy your other books -- The idea of Franco and Shakespeare is fine by me -- lots of precedent for that. With your attention to detail I think it would surely be one of the good ones.

Pam -- I so cannot imagine Byron having anything to say to Jane Austen, but trust that you, if anyone, could make it work. And the title is perfect....

1:29 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I love Pam's idea of Byron and Austen crossing paths. There are so many readers though, for whom Austen is sacred, that even an incredibly imaginative story about her that we know from the start is purely fictional, gets their dander up. Because I love a great story, I'm one of those readers (and writers) who feel that one should never lose sight of the "fiction" half of the "historical fiction" genre. If I'm in the mood for pure biography, I'll head to that section of the bookstore.

2:25 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I love Pam's idea of Byron and Austen crossing paths.

Somehow I just hear a resounding *SLAP*.

3:42 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

It would have to be much less explicit than I usually write, more discussion before and after the fact (I keep thinking about Allan Bennet, though I'm not sure it's completely apposite here).

My take on Byron (not extensive, mostly Benita Eisler's bio) is that he wasn't a considerate lover from a physical point of view. The story would have him learn to be, from a woman whose sense of irony and human foible would be stronger than his own and would demand it of him.

But the truth was that he was far too neurotic and defensive for me to imagine my way through it. (I was going to say that Austen was too sheltered, but I'm not sure I believe that: anyone who read Les Liaisons Dangereuses as a teenager just might have known what she was getting into.)

4:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I cannot resist having persons such as Byron cross paths with my fictionaly character(s). In my recently completed ms, Byron makes an appearance at the heroine's palazzo in Malta, curious of the art and life-size crucifixes, was he. I had him meandering through the cloisters, and it seemed so poetic...to me at least.

I was forced to cut to the chase, of course, and delete it, but I liked writing it.

Real persons crossing paths sounds just as intriguing to me--more so! I love the idea of Byron meeting our Jane. Her wit. His art. Lovin' it.

I delight in your books Amanda. It's cool to see you here.

Cathy, up too late.

11:06 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

It's Amanda Elyot!! Another great writer becomes a Hoyden. I love the cover of "By a Lady."

"What If" stories can be a ton of fun, because they don't bend actual historical facts, but simply fill in the gaps with new creative ideas. I look forward to Will & Franco. :)


12:21 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Welcom, Amanda. I saw BY A LADY on the dump at Keplers Bookstore, mixed right in there with the "literary" fiction.

This bookstore is soooo famous for being unromance friendly, I had to support a fellow romance writer, so I bought it! BY A LADY is on the top of my to be read pile.

Glad to have you with the Hoydens!

7:55 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Ooooh, I'm really feeling the love today. Thanks, hoydens, for your compliments and your support.

To piggyback Kathrynn's comment, bookstores continually suprise me when it comes to lack of support for romance.

I got pretty annoyed and fleetingly depressed when last week a friend (who wanted to buy it as a Mother's Day gift for his mom) told me he couldn't find TOO GREAT A LADY (my Emma Hamilton novel) at some of the NYC Barnes & Noble locations. After all, the book's only been out for 3 months. Luckily, it's still at the 2 B&Ns on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

9:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

if Erica Jong could write a book about a contemporary actress falling into the canal in Venice and ending up in 16th century where she has an affair with Shakespeare, then I think you can get away with having Veronica Franco meet him. I think Erica Jong actually had the character end up pregnant!

1:57 PM  

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