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29 January 2010

The Latest PBS "Emma"




After I busy work-week, I finally wrestled the TV away from my 6 year old and insisted it was my turn---I invited her to watch "my show". Reluctantly, she settled on the couch next to me, but much to my amazement, she never peeped for the next two hours---watching "Emma" on PBS.

Now this is child who can quote song and verse from High School Musical One, Two and Three, a child who will find the latest version of I Carly, or the Wizards of Waverly Place, and yes, sometimes even Hannah Montana, before she can find her shoes. I was shocked. But sat she did, all the way through, seemingly fascinated.

Now the latest version of Jane Austen's Emma has been advertised as "more approachable"---as if it wasn't. And it was widely hoped that the lovely young actress and actor who play the leads were "more relatable" than those of the past. I guess if a 6 year old found something particularly view-worthy about this show, then PBS has far exceeded anyone's expectation in creating a version with mass market appeal (but IMO, no updating to the story-line has EVER been needed---it has always had mass-market appeal).

So is this version more contemporary? What I notice is one lively Emma, who makes a lot of faces at everyone (not a Regency attribute, I believe), but she certainly is engaging. I think I like her a little more than other Emmas, because she is so incredibly naive and clueless---a lot like the well-cast Alecia Silverstone in "Clueless". Emma in this PBS version is portrayed as interfering, class-conscious while ignoring the realities of life, and ego-centric, but she has a certain charm that makes everyone, even the viewers, tolerate her. I do not share the opinion of some reviewers that she was "as clueless as a block of wood." Not on all accounts. She argues far too well with Mr. Knightly.

In PBS' latest installment, Emma is still a heroine, well-dressed and clever enough not to be at all dull. She's been that way for 195 years. No modernization needed. To prove my point, she captured the interest of a 6 year old, who asked me if we could read the book. I leapt from the couch yelling, yes! Move over Troy and Gabriella. Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightly have arrived.

PBS, you get an A from me for "Emma".

What do you think? How does the latest PBS installment of "Emma" stack up? Does it make the grade?

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27 January 2010

Star Trek, Lost, and Characters that Fascinate

My book,Vienna Waltz, is due February 1st. So since I'm currently in the throes of going through the book through for the last time, layering in more texture, double-checking research facts, making sure my timeline is consistent, and a zillion other things that always seem to be part of the last week of working on a book, I went through old posts on my own blog to see if I could find something to post today. I came across a post I wrote last May on series and characters that fascinate. Which seems particularly apropos, because one of the series I talk about is Lost. When I first wrote this post, the season finale had just aired. Now, the final season is about to premiere (Tuesday, February 2nd, a treat for me after I turn my book in :-).


My musing on series started when my friend Penny Williamson and I spent the afternoon of my birthday last May at a matinee of the Star Trek movie. We both loved it. It manages to simultaneously be fresh and innovative and yet true to the original. The actors do a fabulous job of capturing the characters we know so well, in mannerism and vocal patterns (and the way the writers wrote their dialogue). You can really believe these characters will grow into the characters from the original tv series. And yet the new actors never seem to be mimicking, they make the characters their own. Since I love to move back and forth in time in my own writing and examine my characters at different points in their history, I particularly enjoyed the prequel aspect (the prequel and alternate universe were very timely since I was then in the early stages of writing Vienna Waltz, which is both a prequel and something of an alternate universe take on my own series).

Penny and I both love to talk about favorite series. When we first became friends, we spent endless lunches analyzing and speculating over Dorothy Dunnett’s books (this was in the years when the House of Niccolò series was still being written and published). More recently, we could be found picking apart Alias over lattes in our favorite café. Waiting for Star Trek to start, we were discussing the season finale of Lost. Penny and I’ve been discussing Lost a lot lately. In fact, we talked about it for the entire five hour plus drive from the San Francisco Bay Area to Ashland, Oregon, on our spring trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Lost fascinates and baffles both of us. Usually we can come up with a theory about where we think a story arc is headed (wrong perhaps to varying degrees but at least a theory that works with the information at hand). With Lost, every time we think we have something figured out, the next episode pulls the rug out from under us.

Part of the delight of speculating over a series of course is trying to unravel the plot. When I was a teenager, my mom and I had numerous discussions about Star Wars in the years between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I still remember the moment when, thinking about Arthurian mythology, I said “oh, I know, Luke and Leia are brother and sister.” Of course, I was thrilled to be proved right when we saw Return of the Jedi (the day it opened, my mom stood in line and got tickets and then picked me up at school). But mostly, I was relieved to see the characters I cared about get the happy ending I so wanted them to have. Thinking about Star Trek and Lost, I realized how much of the allure of an ongoing series is the characters. Characters you care about and root for. Characters who seem to have a rich inner life off the screen/page. Characters you want to learn more about. Characters whose fates seem very real and a matter of great concern (I confess to having tears in my eyes at one point in the Star Trek movie, and the Lost season finale definitely left me choked up).

I returned to the world of another favorite series last spring when I read Laurie King's The Language of Bees. It was a delight to step back into Russell & Holmes’s world. When I finished the book, I didn’t want to leave that world (partly because of the questions left to be answered in the next installment, but mostly because I wanted to spend more time with these characters). For quite a while afterwards I reread earlier books in the series, unable to move on to something new.

I'm currently immersed in yet another beloved series, reading Lauren's Betrayal of the Blood Lily. Having this book to read while I'm finishing up my own book is both a delight and very dangerous. It's great to have a treat for breaks from revisions, but I'm have to firmly resist the temptation to dive into the world of the Pink Carnation characters and not come up for air until I've finished the book. When I saw Lauren in New York last fall, one of the very fun things about our conversations was talking about our respective series and asking what was next for various characters. It's almost like talking about mutual friends. In a way it's more intimate, because we know so many details about the characters.

What makes you bond with the characters in a particular series? Have you seen the Star Trek movie? Do you watch Lost? If so, do you have the faintest idea of where the show is headed? :-).

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25 January 2010

Interesting Regency-era Stays

Today’s post is going to be short and sweet. I spent 17+ hours over the weekend digging a malware program out of my computer and it pretty much exhausted me (I did get rid of it though; $70 and four new antivirus programs later *sigh*).

I troll various auction and retail sites for new and interesting examples of period clothing. Recently I found a pair of stays that were different than any I’d ever seen before. They’re from the Regency era and appear to be rather like a pair of jumps (the unboned, but supportive lounging stays of the 18th century). I’ve never seen anything like them. The best part is, authors are always clamoring for something their heroine could get in and out of herself, and these fit the bill.

They’re made of simple canvas, with a short lace at the top and a wrapping closure at the waist that pinned shut. Easy in; easy out. I’m guessing these are a homemade garment, and probably not the cutting edge of fashion, but they’re perfect for a country miss who needs to be a little more self-sufficient (maybe someone who had sisters to help, but no actual maid).

24 January 2010

The wilder shores of love - Part I


Jane Digby was known in her later years as “Engleysi,” the Madwoman. Unbelievable as it may seem, this is the true story of a Regency-era woman, born into nobility in 1807 in Norfolk, England. She grew up in comfort, in a serene pastoral countryside before the Industrial Revolution, and she gave her governess heart failure: Jane loved life; she had perfect health, a reckless and ardent temperament; and (in her later years) she thrived on scandal. Throughout her life a “scarlet thread of exoticism” pulled her into a yen for adventurous travel (not surprising since her father was a buccaneering admiral). A child of the Regency, she was enamored of romantic curiosities–Turkish slippers, Arab daggers, Moorish-style gazebos, onion-shaped domes.

Jane was married (though not consulted) at age 17 to Lord Ellenborough, a man twice her age who neglected her. In 1821 she had a fling with her cousin, Captain George Anson, conceived a child, whom Lord Ellenborough accepted as his heir. Jane then fell madly in love with an Austrian Prince, Felix Schwarzenberg, and fled to Paris with him. In doing this she gave up everything – her good name, her fortune, and her friends. Alas, the prince cooled after the birth of two daughters, and by this time Lord Ellenborough had divorced her.

Jane had outraged public opinion. Her family back in England turned her pictures to the wall, but she kept the love and respect of close friends. According to those who knew her well, she was transparently honest, without pose, eager, trusting, and uncynical. And romantic. Her life extended from the Regency age into the Victorian age, during which Jane became the mistress of both King Ludwig I of Bavaria, and later, his son, Otho, the king of Greece.

And then one day she traveled to Syria to buy an Arabian horse. She was 46 years old, spoke and read 8 languages including Arabic, was interested in archeology, a superb horsewoman, and still extraordinarily beautiful. The lusty young Bedouin Sheikh Salih, 20 years her junior, swept her off her feet. He refused to give up his harem; Jane insisted on being the sole wife, and they parted.

Jane could not return to England, France, Bavaria, or Greece, so she decided to learn Arabic and retire to the Arab quarter of Damascus with Eugenie, her long-suffering maid. She hired another camel caravan to cross the desert, a 9-day journey – an unheard of venture by a single woman traveling alone. Along the way she met Sheikh Abdul Medjuel El Mezrab, a Bedouin chief who controlled the desert she was crossing. The man was honorable and cultivated, educated (at the insistence of his father) and well-read; he spoke 3 languages, was tall and unusually handsome, and he fell hard for Jane. Mezrab was also described as virile, scholarly, a man of character and humor. But he was of the desert...

It was unheard of for a Muslim man, particularly a sheikh, to marry a Christian woman. But Mezrab had found out about Jane’s dalliance with Sheikh Salih and did not want to share her. In 1854 Jane started for Baghdad in another caravan and along the way enjoyed a voluptuous affair with another sheikh El Barrak. But they quarreled. By now Jane was famous in Syria. Mezrab intercepted the caravan with a beautiful Arab mare for Jane, announced he had divorced his existing wife, and begged her to marry him. The English consul in Damascus tried to prevent the union, but they were married at Homs and moved into a house Mezrab owned. Jane was now known as Jane Digby El Mezrab and Umn-el-Labam - Mother of Milk, because of her fair complexion.

From then on, the couple spent six months in a fine house Jane built in Damascus and six months in Arab tents. She adopted Arab ways: went barefoot, wore a simple blue robe and yeshmak, used kohl around her eyes. The Arabs admired her horse knowledge and skill; she hunted with falcons and Persian hounds and rode her camel at the head of Mezrab’s tribe of Bedouins. She adopted the Arab philosophy of To Be rather than the western To Have; entertained Mezrab’s 8 brothers, wives, and children, and gave sought-after advice on medicine, law, and education.

Jane also rode on tribal raids, once to restore a stolen mare of hers which was finally regained after a desert skirmish lasting 3 weeks. Some battles, she observed , were conducted like medieval tourneys with ceremony and tradition; others were bloody free-for-alls in which a young girl singer was housed in a camel howdah. The object of battle was to capture the girl, who sang inciting songs to the tribesmen. Jane was an eye-witness.

Jane and Mezrab were devoted to each other, and the marriage lasted 30 years, until Jane’s death. More of Jane’s adventures and the dramatic end of her life will be covered in Part II (blog on February 12).

Source: Lesley Blanch, The Wilder Shores of Love.

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20 January 2010

Williamsburg in Winter


I moved to the East Coast from California several Decembers ago. Lucky me, it happened to be a winter filled with minus-twenty degree wind chills. By February, I was so frozen stiff that I demanded a vacation. I headed to celebrate Washington’s Birthday where my historian’s heart had always dreamed of visitingWilliamsburg, home of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry. Land of impeccably restored eighteenth century architecture, peopled by historical interpreters, and dotted with fine restaurants and good shops.

Even better, surely it was far enough south to feel balmy, right? Well, we did step out of the car to find mid-twenties temperatures during the day, swept across our faces by forty mile-per-hour winds. We reminded ourselves this was warmer than where we had left and sallied forth.

In the summer, Williamsburg’s streets swarm with tourists and historical interpreters shout at them like barkers to catch their attention, in hopes of focusing their fickle attention on a story from the past, or a building to enter, or a recreated treat. It’s as vibrant and alive as fish leaping and dancing in a crowded river.

But Williamsburg during a cold winter is like stepping through a time warp, until you’re walking through streets which still remember what colonial life meant. In the summer, almost every building offers shelter from the weather to a visitor. But in the winter? A pedestrian must clutch her coat – or sturdy woolen cloak – firmly around her, then trot briskly toward her destination, often with her hands hidden away from the biting wind.

We soon realized we needed to study the map long and carefully to see what was open, then plot our route accordingly. We soon learned which side of the road was best at sheltering us from the gale – no, wind – and mapped our dashes accordingly. We visited some tradesmen’s shops simply because they were open and therefore warm – and found ourselves exploring wonderful things.

We grew to recognize the brisk swing of an interpreter’s cloak as he – or she – hustled between buildings. (Or raced to their twentieth-century vehicle hidden at the edge of the Historic Area.) We tried to avoid any dire suspicions about what was under an interpreter’s costume if his cloak’s swing seemed a tad leisurely. Surely nobody with their heart in the eighteenth-century would stoop to modern long johns?

Indoor spaces became measured by their distance from a fire. The blacksmith’s forge felt warm and cozy as soon as the door swung open. It was full of women, too, who huddled around the front counter which was the closest visitors could come to that massive forge. My, could those females come up with questions about how to make wrought iron keys – and stare down their husbands if they dared suggest moving on!

The private dining room at Christiana Campbell’s Tavern, George Washington’s favorite tavern, was a long, narrow space, barely wide enough for two small card tables set diagonally immediately in front of the fireplace. Since my sister and I had the room to ourselves, we sat down with our backs to the blazing fire and soon grew completely warm for the first time all day. We grew hotter and switched sides of the table so that we could stare into the flames, only to find our backs freezing cold. We quickly learned how to slowly rotate our places at the table so we would remain evenly comfortable, a trick which the server assured us had been frequently performed a few centuries ago.

And we enjoyed our dinner, inspired by eighteenth century recipes and eaten in flickering candlelight, so that servants sometimes seemed to appear out of the darkness beyond by magic.

The fine residences had their own charm, especially the kitchens. I’d never before seen beating an egg white with a twig, whose end had been sliced up into a brush. It took a long time and a strong arm – and possibly magic – but when that egg white bubbled and frothed and finally stood erect and stiff in the goblet, everyone on the tour cheered.

The hearth itself, where cooking was done, was actually more like a room than a box. It had a heavy stone floor to conduct heat from the small fires built at various places inside it. (No wonder so many women died from having their skirts catch on fire!) Wrought iron levers and hooks stretched along the hearth’s roof, ready to move pots and pans from one spot to another. They looked like oriental dragons, sinuous and deadly, ready to snake into the flames to do battle.

Upstairs, light stole into the rooms from all sides Often there’d be a window seat on the landing for the stairs, originally designed to catch a welcome breeze to ease summer heat or brighten an impromptu dance in the wide center hallway below. And always, always the incredibly rich slickness of milk-based paint covering the walls, which makes them feel like silk over stone.

I tried to recapture some of those sensations when I wrote “Caught by the Tides,” my paranormal Regency romance, in BEYOND THE DARK. The terror of being out in the dark in the cold, where a sudden drenching could leave my heroine as vulnerable to the storm as my shipwrecked hero. The unexpected magicks to be found in the kitchen, from its warm shelter to the iron hooks overhead.

And, most of all to my twentieth-century eyes, the incredible amount of work required to accomplish anything, a craftsman’s pride of accomplishment, and a rich man’s careless acceptance – even dismissal – of other men’s craftsmanship. My hero is a noblewoman’s abandoned bastard, who abhors being classed with the aristocracy. Learning to accept his right to wear fine clothing is a very large portion of his growth – and I couldn’t have written some of his sensations without visiting Williamsburg.

Have you ever visited a place which made the past come alive for you? Do you have a favorite place to visit when you’re writing a book, just to get inside your characters’ heads?

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19 January 2010

Too Good to Ignore

My latest book, The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, is set in Hyderabad in 1804. I hadn’t intended, originally, to set it in Hyderabad. The original plan was for my book to take place in Calcutta and points north. In the autumn of 1804, luck—or something else—had turned against the British in India. After the victory won at Assaye the previous year, they were experiencing unprecedented military losses in the north, at the hands of a Maratha leader named Holcar. It seemed to make sense to set the book where the action was, near the military maneuvering of Lord Lake.

Then I stumbled upon Hyderabad, via William Dalrymple’s White Moghuls, and the planned plot of my book changed, dramatically and permanently.

A large province towards the center of the subcontinent, Hyderabad was a princely state presided over by a hereditary ruler called the Nizam. It was a young dynasty; it was only in 1724 that the Nizum ul-Mulk had carved it out as a semi-independent fiefdom out of the Moghul Empire, nominally retaining allegiance to that empire while operating as an independent entity.

Part of what attracted me to Hyderabad was the role played by Franco-British rivalry in the region. As those of you have glanced at my books know, they all take place against the backdrop of the conflict between England and France in the early years of the nineteenth century. Hyderabad fit beautifully into this schema. Until 1798, Hyderabad housed two sets of rival troops: a French force and an English force, both of whom were nominally there to protect the interests of the Nizam. The French force in Hyderabad nominally served the Nizam, but they fought under the Revolutionary tricolore. Their leader, Colonel Raymond, wrote to the French governors of Pondicherry and Mauritius pledging his loyalty to France and the Revolutionary regime. The canny English Resident, James Achilles Kirkpatrick, managed to engineer a coup in 1798, disarming the French force, but the fear of the French threat lingered.

I was also fascinated by the prominent role played by women in the court of Hyderabad. Among his guards, the Nizam maintained an all female regiment, the Zuffur Plutun, or the Victorious Battalion. Soldiers from the brigade served as the Nizam’s bodyguard, but the Zuffur Plutun’s role wasn’t confined to light duty at the palace; they actively rode into battle, playing a key role in several major battles. Contemporary commentators remarked upon their ferocity in battle. Both of the Nizam’s Masters of Ceremonies (a position of huge power at court), Mama Champa and Mama Barun, were women. They had gotten their start as wet nurses to the royal family. With women guarding his gates and conducting his durbar, the Nizam also had a famous female as a member of his omrah, or council: the courtesan Mah Laqa Bai, renowned for her wit, wisdom, and poetry.

And, while we’re at it, who can possibly resist a mad ruler? Points of change always make the best fodder for a novelist. In 1803, the old Nizam died. He was a remarkably clever man who had consolidated his dynasty, turning Hyderabad, in the words of William Dalrymple, “from the Sick Man of Late Mughal India into the vital strategic asset of the eighteenth century Cold War, without whose friendship and support no power could gain dominance in India”. He was also a good friend to the English, with a close, working relationship with the English Resident. Upon his death, the throne devolved to Crown Prince Sikander Jah. The new Nizan was not a man in the mould of his predecessor. In fact, he was rumored to be mad. The new Nizam, apparently, got his kicks out of strangling members of his household with silk handkerchiefs.

Fair enough; some of the best regimes have had mad rulers (cf George III)—all that was needed was a good Prime Minister. In the spring of 1804, right before my fictional heroine shows up in Hyderabad, Aristu Jah, the old Prime Minister, passed on to join his old master in that great durbar in the sky. The new Nizam appointed a minister of whom even Lord Wellesley, the Governor General, approved: a man named Mir Alam, who had once worked closely with the English. There was one slight problem. Mir Alam had been exiled by the old regime. During that time he had been suffering from acute cases of hurt feelings and leprosy. He returned, rotten in body and soul, determined to wreak his revenge on anyone he deemed responsible for his exile. Which meant just about everyone. It was rumored that he was so venomous, even snakes were afraid to bite him. A mad ruler and an even madder Prime Minister— what novelist could ask for anything more? Instability makes for uncomfortable living but excellent fiction.

In short, Hyderabad was the perfect place to send a heroine on honeymoon.

Have you ever come across something that's made you change all your plans? Or a historical fact/setting that was too good to ignore?

15 January 2010

Dance Lessons

Fred Astaire didn't like to do romantic clinch scenes on screen. Partly, he thought he didn't have the requisite romantic leading man looks. So the kiss that follows this still from Swing Time is blocked from audience view by a door in the foreground that opens just in time.

And anyway, Astaire would add, the lovemaking was in the dance routines he choreographed.

Which assertion could certainly stand as support for any romance writer's choice to leave the explicit erotic details out of her romance writing. And indeed (though I've always written erotic romance , not to speak of some down and dirty erotica) some of my favorite romance reading depends upon little besides a hero and heroine, perhaps a text, glove, or stocking in contention, and lots of good banter.

While for my own writing, it's always been a different matter. Explicit sex is an important part of my books. A mysteriously important part of it, especially for mild-mannered, shy moi -- I'm always trying to figure out what fascination this sort of writing holds for me, what part it plays in my craft, and how to do it better and yet to keep it fresh, surprising. And mysterious.

And so, a few weeks ago when I was packing for a vacation trip (which meant first a whole lot of ironing in front of my DVD player), when I was marveling at the dance routines in the 1936 Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers masterpiece Swing Time, I did surprise myself by thinking, "Oh yes, that's what I'm going for when I write the sex scenes."

At first I didn't even quite know what I meant. But I had a lot to iron, and a lot of choices to make about what to bring for frigid East Coast and Midwest weather and how to get it all into my carry-on bags. And luckily, the DVD of Swing Time contains some of the most informative and least self-indulgent supplementary material of any DVD I've ever seen, with film scholars, dancers, and various artists who actually worked with Astaire and Rogers explaining, in exhaustive detail, the remarkable conception and production of those dance routines. And after I watched certain segments enough times -- even, as Astaire scholar John Mueller suggests on the voice-over commentary, in slow motion -- I started to get it.

Or at least I started to get what I could take away from it. Which is that in the three extraordinary numbers Astaire and Rogers dance together in Swing Time, what we see is two people simultaneously being most themselves and also somehow becoming more than that -- learning to be a couple -- in a narrative arc that spans the dance routines and traces the development of a relationship.

It starts simply, and it's built into the very steps Astaire created.

The ostensible plot, by the way, hardly bears scrutiny, except to say that it provides obstacles when needed: sometimes money (this was the Great Depression, after all), sometimes prior obligations to other lesser love interests.

All you need know at the beginning is that Rogers is a dance instructor, Astaire a gambler who's been secretly moonlighting a dancer. They've met classically cute; Astaire, partly because of his gambling, has inadvertently insulted Rogers; he's decided to take dance lessons to get close to her and get her to forgive him,. And to justify his getting the lessons, he's been pretending (with some effort) to be a hopeless klutz while she tries first simply to teach him to walk rhythmically at her side, and then to do a rudimentary right-two-three left-two-three with her as a couple.

Here, in their first routine "Pick Yourself Up" he "suddenly" picks up the steps, amazing Rogers and everyone but the delighted film audience. What I love in the sequence besides its obvious gorgeousness is his and Rogers' mutual discovery of who they are in motion -- or when they're being their truest, most intimate selves, dancing.

But also check out what film scholar John Mueller has called "The Astaire Double Helix" -- a step that begins with them walking/dancing side-by-side -- gorgeously equal in their competence, entertained by each other's competence and (wonderfully) just a little bit competitive as well -- then spinning around each other in a complex drama of separateness, yearning, and attraction, then somehow propelled by the energy of their separate spins to land back face to face to dance as partners.

I found myself moved beyond measure, and I think (in this dialectic between separateness and mutuality) I found a piece of what I've always been trying to portray in my sex scenes. Click here for the exquisite routine, which Mueller called Ginger Roger's greatest two minutes (and note that the double helix is about a minute and ten seconds into the routine.)

The steps and motifs develop and grow more poignant as the narrative works its way home. In the "Waltz in Swing Time" number, the couple is confident in their growing mutual professional competence, happy to share it with a breathless, appreciative audience, to explore the joys of waltzing to an updated beat (the meeting of old and new thrilling my historical writer wonkiness), and simply reprising the one-two-three from their first dance with a fabulous exuberance coming from an ecstasy of their emerging understanding that they've become a couple with a shared history (a history that -- thanks to the voyeurism that always informs the best erotic fictions -- the audience is also privileged to understand).

And at the dark moment when the plot conflicts seem insoluble, the dazzling "Never Gonna Dance" routine reprises and reorders the steps and motifs so that now the separateness always threatening to dominate finally makes good on its threat (at least until the HEA ending soon to com). The now broken-up couple are alone on the set where they last danced so happily. They've tried to talk -- but talking isn't what Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers do best even at the best of times.

Again beginning by walking side to side, Astaire sweeps Rogers into almost frighteningly quick spins. For a moment it seems like the old one-two-three step might bring them back together. But it doesn't. Nor does the double helix work -- perhaps because they no longer have that good-natured competitiveness that's so productive in all romances. Astaire is too violent as the initiator of the spins; the poignancy of Rogers achieving them is startling -- though eventually she's spun off the screen to leave him (gorgeously, of course) exhausted and despairing.

(This was the famous routine, by the way, that took 47 takes and left Rogers' feet bleeding; I don't know why it was so difficult, but I'm guessing it's the speed and control demanded of her. Dramatically it's astonishing; she never seems stronger than in this break-up scene -- and the gown is to die for, isn't it?)

But the happy ending does come. Improbably, ridiculously, plotwise. But wonderfully from a thematic viewpoint. Taking explicit notice of the dance/sexuality equation, Fred sings, (to the tune of "A Fine Romance")

Remember how my arms hold you when we dance
But we're not going to dance
This is a fine romance

And it is. Leading me to remember the dance scenes I've included in Almost a Gentleman and The Edge of Impropriety (interestingly, in both cases, with the dancers all in black and white). And that I recently commented on some blog that "I write because I can't dance."

OK. Your turn. About the relationship of eroticism to other sorts of narrative. About dance and film and other arts and romance. Or whatever -- including the films and novels of the 1930s that seem to be so much a part of the romance aesthetic a la hoyden.

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13 January 2010

Guest Author Beverley Kendall


Please join me in giving a warm welcome to guest author Beverley Kendall, whose debut novel, Sinful Surrender, hit the shelves last week.

Millicent “Missy” Armstrong is entering her fourth London Season, but not for lack of suitors. Since her debut three years ago, Missy has received twenty marriage proposals. But she is interested in only one man—her brother’s best friend, James Rutherford. As a child, Missy looked up to James. As a grown up, her admiration has blossomed into the longings of a beautiful, sensuous woman—and she won’t rest until James admits his love—and desire—for her…

James Rutherford rues the day he let his physical weaknesses get the better of him by kissing Missy. His best friend has made it clear that Missy is off limits, and though he’s avoided her for three years, he hasn’t forgotten the feel of her soft lips pressed against his—and it seems neither has she. For no matter how much James tries to discourage Missy, he keeps winding up in her arms, sharing heated caresses that promise the most delirious pleasure...


Below Beverley shares her thoughts on the allure of the Victorian era. She'll be giving away copies of Sinful Surrender to two lucky commenters, so do join in the discussion!

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Why lure of the Victorian era?

There are several reasons I decided to write in the Victorian era. The first spans 1837-1901, the reign of Queen Victoria. I really like having all these years to play with. The second reason was that it wasn't the Regency period. Don't get me wrong, most of the historicals I read are set during the Regency, but there is that whole matter of industrial advancement that period lacked. I wanted to write in a time when lighting, plumbing, and the sewage system were more advanced. I wanted to write about a time when suffragettes were really beginning to come into play. When women could own property and file for divorce. All of these advancements took place during the Victorian period.

Well then why not write during the twentieth century? Because for some odd reason I believe remaining in the nineteenth century makes it more historical to me. The time isn't so advanced as to lose that je ne sais quoi that makes a story feel like I'm reading about another time, another era, and indeed another century.

But all is not easy in the Victorian era. There are things I'm definitely not fond of. One, and the most significant, has to be the clothing. Oh dear, why does there have to be so much of it, and why can't the skirt of a dress fit through a regular door? Even in the latter years, there was that bustle, although I admit, I'd rather the bustle than those whale-boned cages.

And did you know that the Victorians were even more repressed than their counterparts in the Regency? Apparently, the Regency era was like the roaring 1920s, which then caused severe social repression as we also saw in the 1950s. But it also birthed the traditional family and Christmas as we now celebrate it.

Sinful Surrender and the subsequent books in my Reformed Rakes trilogy takes place from 1852-1868 and I was happy to see my characters learn and adapt to the changes of their time. I'm especially looking forward to a time I can get my poor heroines out of their clothes without the equivalent to an act of Parliament.

What about you? What is your favourite historical era? Is there anything in particular that makes it your favourite?

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06 January 2010

My new book contract & the Congress of Vienna


Happy New Year! As I recently reported on my own website, I'm very happy to be seeing 2010 in with a new two-book contract with Kensington Books. That’s my wonderful new editor Audrey LaFehr in the picture to the left, with me and my fabulous agent Nancy Yost on my November trip to New York at a Merola Opera Program party. I’m in the midst of writing the first book on the contract, which has the working title The Dark Waltz. (People who follow my status updates on Twitter and Facebook have been seeing updates about the progress of this book for some time.)

The Dark Waltz is set in 1814 at the Congress of Vienna. I think I first heard of the Congress of Vienna in Georgette Heyer books (I know there are mentions of Sophy and her father being there in The Grand Sophy). I remember being fascinated by a lecture about it my freshman year at Stanford. I've referenced the Congress as part of the back story in several books, and I’ve wanted to set a book at it for ages. It offers such rich scope for a novelist. After Napoleon was exiled to Elba, representatives of countries across Europe gathered in Vienna to redraw the Continental map. There was a great deal of intriguing, both political and romantic. In the autumn of 1814, the Congress of Vienna was *the* place to be. Imagine a combination of a modern international political conference and the Cannes Film Festival. Some claimed the delegates spent as much time waltzing as negotiating. The Festivals Committee, appointed by Austrian Emperor Francis I, felt it their duty to keep the foreign delegations entertained with events each more lavish than the last. There were masquerade balls, balloon ascensions, sleigh rides, a recreation of a medieval tournament, nights at the theater and the opera.

Viennese society was filled with music. Beethoven, at the height of his fame, gave a concert. Salieri, Vienna's Hofkapellmeister, organized many musical events (including a concert with a a hundred pianos). There were already rumors at the time that he had poisoned Mozart (the rumors that became the basis of the play and film Amadeus) though no evidence to support those rumors. Salieri had taken an interest in the young Schubert. Schubert, who is a character in The Dark Waltz, was seventeen at the time of the Congress and already having works performed(his first Mass premiered in October, 1814).


One could scarcely turn round without stumbling over a spy for one power or another. The Austrians tried to slip agents into the foreign delegations as scullery maids and bootboys. British Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh frustrated these efforts by bringing his servants with him from England. Everyone was combing through diplomatic wastebaskets looking for coded papers.

Scores of illicit love affairs took place in this frenetic atmosphere. Many of the delegates had come to Vienna without their spouses, expecting the Congress to only last a few weeks rather than months. Along with the official delegates, a number of powerful, glamorous women took up residence in Vienna and opened salons. French Foreign Minister Prince Talleyrand (who adroitly managed to maneuver himself into the heart of negotiations despite France being the defeated power) brought his beautiful young niece-by-marriage, Dorothée, as his hostess and fell in love with her himself, despite being thirty-nine years her senior (and despite the fact that her mother had recently been his mistress). Lovely, unhappy Tsarina Elisabeth of Russia found herself reunited with Adam Czartoryski, the charismatic Polish patriot who was probably the love of her life (and had also been her husband's best friend). Meanwhile her husband, Tsar Alexander, and Austrian Foreign Minister Prince Metternich, fierce rivals at the negotiating table, also were entangled with two of the same women, Princess Catherine Bagration ("the naked angel") and the brilliant Wilhelmine, Duchess of Sagan (Dorothée's elder sister). When I described this to my friend Penny she said, "surely in all Vienna they could find different women to pursue?" I said, "I think that was rather the point." The Tsar and Metternich carried their rivalry over to the boudoir. The plot of The Dark Waltz centers on a third, fictional woman, also involved with both Metternich and the Tsar, who is found murdered on the night she has summoned Metternich, Tsar Alexander, the hero (an English attaché who is possibly her lover) and his wife to her rooms, all at the same time.

I'll be posting more about the Congress of Vienna in the coming months. Meanwhile, what historical events have you always wanted to read or write a book about?

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05 January 2010

NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES



I can't believe that my thirteenth book releases today!

NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES, A Juicy Journey Through Nine Centuries of Dynasty, Destiny, and Desire is my second foray into the world of historical nonfiction (my debut was back in June 2008 with ROYAL AFFAIRS, A Lusty Romp Through the Extramarital Adventures That Rocked the British Monarchy.)

Here's a sneak preview ... from the book's forward:


Everyone loves a royal wedding. Except, perhaps, the bride and groom. Throughout history, most royal marriages were arranged affairs, brokered for diplomatic and dynastic reasons, and often when the prospective spouses were mere children. The perfect royal marriage brought territorial gains to the ruling dynasty's side (usually the groom's) and cemented alliances between families and regions. It was of little consequence that the spouses often didn't meet until their wedding day. Or that they had been in love with someone else and were now compelled to abandon all hope of the personal happiness or emotional fulfillment that might have come from nuptial bliss with another. There is no I in dynasty.

In general, there was always one primary goal of a royal marriage: to beget an heir. And for a good part of the past millennium, when much of Western Europe was embroiled in perpetual warfare, it was believed that only a male heir would be able to defend and hold the throne, although a female could legally inherit the throne in England and Scotland. During more martial eras, royal wives who managed to produce only daughters-Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, for example-were disposed of by their spouse, powerless to challenge his authority. If execution was no longer an option to ending a problematic or infertile marriage, there was always divorce. Napoleon Bonaparte divorced his first wife, Josephine Beauharnais, because she failed to bear him a son.


With so many marriages being little more than dynastic alliances, how did these royals manage to survive their arranged nuptials and make their peace with the world into which they were born? Or did they? Precious few of the notorious royal marriages profiled in this book began as love matches—although they didn't necessarily stay that way. For several centuries, if things weren't working out, the monarch might play the all-purpose, get-out-of marriage-free card known as a papal dispensation on the grounds of consanguinity. In other words, plenty of unions were sundered after cousins who had received a dispensation to marry in the first place suddenly decided to become appalled and repulsed by how closely they were related when it became expedient to wed another.


With so many intriguing relationships, choosing whose stories to omit was nearly as difficult as selecting which ones to include. Within this volume are some of the world's most famous royal unions, as they affected and were affected by the historical and political events of the times; it is not intended to provide an overview of world history, to probe with great depth the wars and revolutions that gripped Europe for centuries, or to present a full biography of the principals.

Comparing the selection of a marriage partner to fishing for an eel—that staple of Renaissance diets-Sir Thomas More's father commented that it was as if "ye should put your hand into a blind bag full of snakes and eels together, seven snakes for one eel."


In these pages are the snakes as well as the eels—the disastrous unions and the delightful ones; the martyrs to marriage and the iconoclasts who barely took their vows seriously; the saintly and the suffering; the rebels, and the renegades-all of whom took the phrases "I do" and "I will" and ran as far as they could go with them, exploring and embracing the broad spectrum of passion, power, and possibilities far beyond the royal bedchamber.


Who is your favorite royal couple ... and why?

04 January 2010

The New Female Coterie


When I’m writing, I find I can’t really read fiction. It sucks me in too far and disrupts my process. But I also find that I really need to take small breaks to sack out on the couch and read. So I turn to my staggering ToBeRead pile of non-fiction. I’m a packrat when it comes to books. I can’t pass over anything that looks like it might be good, and I can’t get rid of anything I haven’t read. I like my heroines a bit outside the box: wicked widows, fallen women, etc. So when I stumbled across Hallie Rubenhold’s The Lady in Red: An Eighteenth-Century Tale of Sex, Scandal, and Divorce, I gladly plunked down my money.


It’s the tale of Seymour Dorothy Fleming, a great heiress (supposedly she had something in the neighborhood of seventy-thousand pounds). She married well, though not spectacularly. Her husband was a cad, and it is clear by his actions that he had very little interest, sexually, in his wife (though he delighted in displaying her to his friends, even going to far as to boost one of them up to peek at her bathing!). Little wonder that Lady Worsley was soon having affair after affair, and that she eventually eloped with one of them.


But it wasn’t Lady Worsley’s tale that dumbfounded me as I read the book, it was the chapter about her new friends after her husband won a separation (her husband refused to divorce her, as keeping her under his thumb, and cut off from rehabilitating herself suited his thirst for revenge). There were a group of fallen ladies (wives and daughters of nobility) that lived a very interesting life somewhere between that of the Ton and the courtesan. The group was led by the Countess of Harrington, who maintained some shred of respectability only because her equally profligate husband wasn’t hypocrite enough to divorce her for following his example . . . the group also included Lady Grosvenor, Lady Ligonier, Lady Margaret Adams, Lady Derby, Lady Ann Cork, the Honorable Catherine Newton, and eventually Lady Worsley.


They met weekly at the exclusive brothel of Mrs. Sarah Pendergast to sup and discuss everything from news to politics to sex (apparently the leading fashionable ladies of the day had blackballed Lady Harrington from their Ladies’ Coterie which met weekly at Almack’s to socialize and dine, and this was her revenge; I must say, I think the countess’s group sounds like it would have been the more interesting and lively). These women, though reduced to living largely off their lovers, were still not quite considered courtesans or mistresses. Their pedigrees guaranteed them something more, though they’d ruined their reputations. My favorite is Lady Ligonier, about whom Rubenhold reports:


"What linked Lady Linogier with her once respectably married sisters was a complete absence of remorse for her conduct. Twenty years after the conclusion of her affair with Alfieri she described the shape her life had taken in a candid letter to him. She expressed her gratitude to the Count for delivering her from the constraints of ‘a world in which I was never formed to exist’ and that she ‘never regretted’ abandoning ‘for a single instant’. Throughout their affair she claimed to have been entirely sensible of her actions and to have foreseen the consequences of them: ‘I thank Providence for having placed me in a more fortunate situation,’ she wrote with hindsight . . . Although a life outside the boundaries of polite society held numerous disadvantages, the sentiments expressed by Lady Ligonier also attest to its merits. As ladies Worsley and Grosvenor experienced, the loss of reputation closed many doors, while also opening others through which fulfillment might be found."


I’ve been told by more than one person that women simply didn’t behave as my heroines do, that they didn’t think that way, sleep around that way, that these kind of women simply didn’t exist. I’m happy to find yet more examples of real women who most certainly did think and love and live very much as the heroines of my imagination insist upon doing . . .

01 January 2010

I'm in love with Bernard Cornwell . . .


What makes a book set in 9th century England interesting - even riveting - to a 21st century female peacenik reader? The work is full of ship lore and men gutting each other with swords and axes, brutality, treachery, and an ailing King Alfred who is presented as a pitiful figure. The protagonist, Uhtred, is a raging Viking warlord with a grudge against Christians. Uhtred is full of pride and bombast; he treats women as chattels, unless he loves them; and he utterly enchants me!

Cornwell takes the bleak setting of English marshes and bald hills and sloggy winter rains and creates a motion picture in words of the land the reader can “see”: rude villages with thatched huts, cowering peasants, often caught between two warring armies, magnificent armor, larger-than-life men. Life in the 9th century and the setting itself is part of the story. Cornwell is a meticulous researcher, and when he describes a scene I revel in every detail:

Morning, and I was young, and the sea was a shimmer of silver and pink beneath wisps of mist that obscured the coasts.

Cornwell’s prose reads like poetry. I suspect he is an admirer of Norse and Icelandic sagas, which were meant to be half-recited, half-sung and accompanied by a harper, in the lord’s hall.

Now, on that distant morning when I was still young, we rowed eastwards on that pink and silver sea.

I can’t resist language like that. Even Cornwall’s descriptions of battle stir me to my toes:

We were screaming a great shout of defiance. My shield, iron-rimmed, was heavy on my left arm. Wasp-Sting was drawn back . . . .The horsemen slammed into the Danes...horses were fetlock deep in blood, and still the swords and axes crushed and cut.
I aimed for Harald himself. He wore no helmet, relying on the sun-glistening blood to terrify his enemies, and he was terrifying: a big man, snarling, eyes wild, ropy-hair dripping red, his shield painted with an axe blade and a short-hafted, heavy-bladed war axe as his chosen weapon.

This is a saga of the struggle for land and power and religious dominance among Anglo Saxons, Mercians, and Danes, written so the reader shudders in revulsion. Descriptions are terrifyingly vivid. [Horse-lovers, do not read this!]

Harald faced us, huge in cloak and mail, then spread his arms as though crucified, and in his right hand was a massive battle axe with which, after bellowing that we would all be fed to the slime worms of death, he killed the horse. He did it with one stroke of the axe and, while the beast was still twitching in its death throes, he slit open its belly and plunged his unhelmeted head deep into the bloody entrails.
My men watched in silence. Harald, ignoring the spasms of the hooves, held his
head deep in the horse’s belly, then stood and turned to show a blood-masked face
and blood-soaked hair and a thick beard dripping with blood. Harald Bloodhair
was ready for battle.”


Yet in the midst of the electrifying tale of struggle and death, Cornwell can portray great gentleness and sensibility:

I took Skade beneath the steering platform, to the small space there, and I took off her cloak and I lay her down, and when we were done we were both in tears.

I met Bernard Cornwell, at a Historical Novel Society conference in 2007. He is tall, attractive, kind of rugged-looking, with scholarly-looking glasses, and nice smile and a warm voice. He speaks well. He writes beautifully. And every time I read one of his books I am smitten all over again.

Quotation source: Bernard Cornwell, The Burning Land, 2009.

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