History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

07 May 2008

An Epistolary Introduction to the World of Charles & Mélanie Fraser

I've always loved letters in novels. Darcy's letter to Elizabeth. Captain Wentworth's incredible love letter to Anne Elliot. The wonderfully witty and insightful collection of letters from various characters that sets the stage for Dorothy Sayers's BUSMAN'S HONEYMOON. Novels told entirely in letters, from Choderlos de Laclos's LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES to Steven Brust and Emma Bull's FREEDOM AND NECESSITY. I love reading the letters of real historical people for research. In particular, I find myself often returning to the witty and insightful comments of Emily Cowper and Harriet Granville.

When I decided to write an epilogue for DAUGHTER OF THE GAME'S reissue as SECRETS OF A LADY, I knew from the first that I wanted to do it in the form of a letter from Charles to Mélanie. When my editor, Lucia Macro, asked me to write something for the A+ extras section and said it was sort of like DVD extras and I could do anything I wanted, I knew at once that I wanted to write a series of additional letters between the characters. I did the same thing for the reissue of BENEATH A SILENT MOON, writing a letter from Charles to Mélanie for the epilogue (I at first thought I'd make this one from Mélanie to Charles, but it seemed to fit the book better for Charles to write the letter) and writing more letters for the A+ section.

Beneath a Silent Moon CoverI write a new letter from one of my characters every week for the Fraser Correspondence section of my website. I thought it would be fun to post one of those letters, which serves as a good introduction to Charles and Mélanie and BENEATH A SILENT MOON. This letter is an entirely fictional letter written by the very real historical figure Emily Cowper (daughter of Lady Melbourne, sister of William Lamb, sister-in-law of Lady Caroline Lamb) to her the equally very real Harriet Granville (daughter of the Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, cousin of Lady Caroline Lamb). I wove letters between Emily and Harriet into the A+ section of BENEATH A SILENT MOON.

George Street
23 March 1817


Dearest Harriet,

I saw them last night. Charles Fraser and his wife. Lady Frances gave a ball to welcome them to London. I must say Mélanie Fraser dresses superbly—that was plain when they were here two and a half years ago, and now one can tell she’s had all her gowns made in Paris. They certainly don’t hang about each other unbecomingly. Charles danced the first dance with her, then spent a good portion of the evening in the library with David Mallinson and Oliver Lydgate and Gideon Carne and some others. Harry went in at one point and told me they were discussing Habeas Corpus. Mélanie Fraser danced a number of dances in her husband’s absence and didn’t seem in the least concerned. Nor did Charles look the least bit jealous when he returned to the ballroom late in the evening to find his wife surrounded by a throng of admirers. So the whole idea that she someone how seduced and bewitched him and addled his reason is nonsensical. Not that I ever gave much credence to it. The whole idea of Charles Fraser being bewitched by anyone is patently absurd. If there’s one thing that man is not it’s a besotted fool. She’s certainly done very well for herself to have escaped Spain (which cannot be at all a comfortable place to live just now( and married a man so comfortably situated, but who can blame her. A girl with no family and fortune must look out for herself. She has a very elegant manner—a touch informal but doesn’t put herself forward disagreeably. And she does seem genuinely fond her children. I’ve seen her in the park with them several times.

Gisèle Fraser, by the way, danced two waltzes with Val Talbot (rather closer than I would care to see Minny dancing with anyone when she’s of an age to dance). I think they would have danced a third time had Evie not gone up and pulled her cousin away. Such a sensible girl, Evie Mortimer. Honoria didn’t look best pleased either. Of course, I suspect she found the whole occasion of the ball uncomfortable, but to her credit she behaved beautifully. She went to talk to Charles and his wife as soon as she arrived. She didn’t linger overly long, but she appeared to say everything that is proper, just as she always does. I wonder if she’s more likely to marry now that Charles is definitely taken. She’d make an excellent match for Fred—just the sort of wife a diplomat needs.

Quen put in an appearance late. For Charles’s sake, I suspect, Quen’s always been fond of him. He danced once with Evie and once with Mélanie Fraser. Kenneth Fraser also did not stay long, though he did dance with his daughter-in-law. Lord Cowper says he heard Mr. Fraser murmur that he’d never expected his son to do so well for himself. Every time I sigh over my own family, I remind myself that I could have been born a Fraser. Or a Talbot.

Yours most affectionately,

Do you like letters in novels? What do you think of letters written entirely in novels? Any favorite examples to suggest?

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Blogger Jessica said...

When I was preparing for my MA exam in French, I fell in love with _Les Liaisons dangereuses_. I really enjoy epistolary novels, and letters within novels.

For films, I also love the exchange of letters marking the passage of times. My favorite here is probably "Beaches" (I sob at the end, every time) but there are plenty of others...not that I can think of any off the top of my head :(

6:59 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I love letters in books. I have several letters to and from my heroine in my YA to her parents. I feel that they are helpful in revealing another part of her life and backstory. I also love modern novels that are told through emails like Meg Cabots books or by Matt Beaumont who has a funny book about an advertising agency in London told through the company emails.

7:58 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for posting, Jessica! Letters in films are a great example. I love the way Captain Wentworth's letter to Anne works in the Amanda Root/Ciaran Hinds "Persuasion." And Darcy's letter to Elizabeth in the Ehle/Firth mini-series. I can't remember if do it as a voice over in the Knightley/McFadyen film, which is funny because I have such clear images of most of that film.

8:12 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Elizabeth, I so agree about letters revealing another side of a character and their back story. And characters will reveal different parts of themselves writing to different people (writing the Fraser Correspondence, I realized I could have Charles reveal things to his best friend David that he'd reveal to no one else).

Emails in novels are great. Dorothy Sayers uses telegrams really well.

8:15 AM  
Blogger Belinda (Worderella) said...

I love letters in books. When I read Dracula, I was surprised to find the majority of the book was written through letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, etc. I found it much more intriguing than any of the movies I've seen (thank goodness), and it really influenced my own writing, I think (hope).

Has anyone ever read The Boy Next Door by Meggin Cabot? That book was written entirely through e-mails, I think, and it was great.

8:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love Harriet Granville's letters too! I'm not familiar with Emily Cowper's. Are there compiled collections of her letters for sale like there are of Harriet's?


9:00 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm also a big fan of letters in books, of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, of the letters that begin Busman's Honeymoon, and ... going back a stretch... to Jo and Amy March's letters home in Little Women, my very first model of what novel-writing could be.

I wrote a series of rather hot letters between Joseph and Marie-Laure in The Bookseller's Daughter, when he's in the Bastille and she's confined to bed with toxemia. But those were inspired by some hot and wonderful wartime letters from my father to my mother that I found when I was a teenager and read with total astonishment. (My mom figured out that I found them and, bless her, was amused rather than furious. Gotta send her some really nice flowers this Mother's Day, in gratitude for that, among other things.)

9:00 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Belinda, I forgot about "Dracula" being written mostly in letters (in fact isn't it almost all letters and journals?). That's a wonderful example of how the epistolary style can work even in a horror story. I haven't read the Meg Cabot book--it sounds great!

Anonymous, so glad to find someone else who likes Harriet Granville's letters! I've found two published collections of them, one edited b her granddaughter or great-granddaughter (Mabel, Countess Airlie), the other, more recent, edited by Tristan Lever (not sure I have the name exactly right). I found them both at the U.C. Berkeley library.

Pam, I'd forgotten about the letters in "Little Women." That's a fabulous story about your parents--I'm so glad your mom was able to be amused, and it's wonderful that it inspired your own characters.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I love letters in novels, esp when they're as well done and juicy as the one you just shared with us!

In my own books, the letters tend to be shorter. The one in my upcoming book LORD SCANDAL is just two words: "Damn you." LOL!

But I might have to steal the idea of the epistolary epilogue for my next book. It's brilliant!

10:20 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I love letters in novels, and I've always been fond of epistolary novels. As an actress as well as an author, I think of them as monologues which reveal as much about the character of the letter's author as they do of the person they are corresponding with, and the people who are discussed in the body of the letter.

I have always been a fan of Les Liaisons Dangereuses as well as one of Jane Austen's teenage efforts, Lady Susan.

Having read the earlier incarnations of each of your books, Tracy, I love this letter because it beautifully and subtly sets up all of the characters in your novels (and the tone is spot-on, too); and knowing how things transpire, I smile to myself over what shall be revealed and how it fits in (or not) with the way your actual personage feels about the fictional ones.

10:25 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Kalen, I think short letters can be very effective in novels. It sounds as though "Damn you" sums up the character's feelings perfectly!

Amanda, love the comparison between letters and monologues. I'm so glad you think the letter sets up the character's and situations in BNEEATH A SILENT MOON! That's a lovely comment! One of the things I love about writing the Fraser Correspondence is exploring different character's (whether real or fictional characters) takes nn the other characters, where their insights are spot on and where they aren't.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Belinda (Worderella) said...

Hi Tracy,

There are very few chapters written in traditional third person in Dracula. Most of the chapters, as you said, are journals and letters. It works perfectly with the horror genre because the reader, like the characters, doesn't understand what's going on. Details about the creature in question trickle in as they do research (these characters, though superstitious, are also awfully scientific in how they treat Dracula. It's like he's one big science project that, if they do enough research, they'll be able to dissect and understand). This delayed information sharing only heightens the suspense and drama, perfect for horror.

In my own work, I'm using letters to emphasize a time when my main character pulls away from everyone (even the reader). An entire chapter full of letters to and from the main character... so you only know what she's writing to people, not entirely what she's really feeling or thinking. Which is how she wants it.

12:17 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

And I also love the narrative device of using letters from a minor character (or even a historical one) to move the plot along and provide another p.o.v.

Gotta think more about that one...

1:37 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Great post, Tracy. I love letters in a novel. Escpecially when the letters are real (written by the real historical character) and interlaced in a good work of historical fiction.

Gives me goose bumps. ;-)

2:02 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That's a great point about the characters' attitudes toward Dracula being so scientific, Belinda (one can almost imagine them as a Victorian version of a CSI team :-). I think that makes an interesting counterpoint to the fantasy/horror and telling so much of the story with letters and journals adds to the sense that it's "real" and immediate, not a fanciful chronicle. The way you've used letters in your own novel sounds fascinating! Is the novel historical?

Pam, I love getting the pov of a minor character, whose a bit detached from the action, on the central characters. Letters are a great way to do this, and I find it particularly interesting to use real historical characters, which I think helps integrate fictional characters into the historical fabric.

Kathrynn, following up on that, I think it's fabulous to weave actual letters from real historical characters into a novel (Sandra Gulland does this beautifully in her Josephine trilogy). In THE MASK OF NIGHT, I begin each chapter with a quote from a letter from one of my characters (that's what gave me the idea for the Fraser Correspondence). Along with the quotes from letters I made up from Mélanie, Charles, David, Simon, and other of my fictional characters, I was able to weave in some quotes from real letters written by Hortense Bonaparte and Charles-Auguste de Flahaut (both of whom are important characters in the book).

7:56 PM  
Blogger Belinda (Worderella) said...

Historical fiction all the way! :) The chapter I mentioned is part of my WIP, Trentwood's Orphan. It's historical romance with paranormal elements. To be honest, it's sort of like historical women's fiction. I might have made that genre up just now, haha.

8:40 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Trentwood's Orphan sounds great, Belinda! I love books that mix genres!

8:44 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I'm sure my agent would argue that historical fiction already is "historical women's fiction," because women make up the lion's share of readers. Of course men do read historical fiction, particularly things like the Aubrey/Maturin series, but in my experience (11 pubbed novels; 1 nonfiction), editors always expect you to write for a women's market anyway. I was asked to take out a lot of the battle stuff in TOO GREAT A LADY, because my agent and editor were convinced that women (meaning most women, not those who are super-geeky about history) would rather read about love than war. I argued that Emma Hamilton fell in love with Nelson as much for his being a war hero and a celebrated naval strategist (and a renegade in his tactics as far as the Admiralty was concerned). If Emma fell in love with this "superhero," readers needed to know what made him one. I still was encouraged to ditch much of Nelson's passionate battle descriptions.

7:13 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

As someone who likes reading about battles and adventures, Amanda (alongside and intermixed with romance), I totally agree with you, Amanda. Particularly in the case of Nelson, whose naval adventures were so much part and parcel of who he was and who Emma fell in love with. I've actually found a lot of my guy friends seem to genuinely enjoy the Charles & Mélanie books, because of the espionage and the stuff about the Napoleonic Wars.

8:12 AM  
Blogger Belinda (Worderella) said...


That's good to know! I waffle between calling the WIP historical fiction and historical romance because while there is a large romance thread, the main theme is about the heroine starting in a bad way and slowly learning to accept herself and her situation... which sounds more "women's fiction" to me.

I also love to read about the history behind the story, and like it when the history is interspersed. In fact, my plot revolves around the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. I just hope I'm not information dumping.

For a really good book that has an excellent combination of history, romance, and political plotting, read Angelique by Sergeanne Golon. I'm still scratching my head trying to figure out how that big fiction book taught me so much about 17th C France.

8:21 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Belinda, I tend to get hopelessly muddled over genre definitions, but that sounds like women's fiction to me as well. I keep meaning to read the Angelique books--my grandmother loved them, and I've heard lots of good things about them.

12:56 PM  

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