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31 May 2015

The Mayfair Affair & the plight of governesses





This weekend, I had the fun of doing an event for The Mayfair Affair, the latest book in my Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch series of Regency historical mysteries, at the wonderful book store Book Passage. As I said in my talk, The Mayfair Affair is a book I've looked forwards to writing for a long time. I knew one of the minor characters was going to take center stage. Laura Dudley, governess to Malcolm and Suzanne's two young children, Colin and Jessica, has been in the background of the series for several books, just as governesses often existed in a sort of twilight zone in upper class households.


Governesses needed to be educated and were often impoverished gentlewomen who had to make their own way in the world, no easy task for single women in the 19th century. Perhaps the dowerless daughter of a clergyman. They were considered a social step above the other servants but not precisely equal to the family. They would take their meals with the children. They might bring the children into the drawing room after dinner or when the parents entertained. They were expected to socially presentable and might even socialize some with the guests. More than one governess became entangled with an elder brother down from Oxford or a family friend or even the father of her charges. But, Jane Eyre not withstanding, such entanglements were unlikely to lead the marriage. Even a whisper of scandal could lead to a governess being dismissed without a reference. So governesses tended to be careful of their reputation which often meant keeping to themselves for self-preservation.


Malcolm and Suzanne are enlightened employers who see Laura as one of the family. But they are also careful of her privacy. So when Laura is accused of the murder of the powerful Duke of Trenchard, they realize they don't really know her. And yet they are convinced she must be innocent. Because, as Suzanne tells Malcolm, she can't accept that someone she trusted with her children could be capable of cold-blooded murder.

That was when I realized that Laura Dudley's story, which in many ways is rooted in the plight of governesses in the early 19th century, also has very contemporary implications. I feel those implications every time I leave my three-year-old daughter Mélanie with a new nanny. I'm very fortunate to be able to be with Mélanie most of the time and to have wonderful nannies and babysitters to watch her when I'm not. But it's hard not to be a touch nervous when I leave her with someone new. I tell myself I have good instincts, just as Suzanne and Malcolm do, that I would know if someone wasn't to be trusted. And yet...  It takes a lot of trust, to leave one's child with someone.

At the same time, it's very easy to bond with someone who who is helping care for your children. Even if you don't spend a lot of time with that person yourself, there's something very intimate about sharing the care of children. And there's nothing like the gratitude you can feel for someone who bonds with your children and makes them happy and secure. Suzanne and Malcolm feel that gratitude toward Laura and that shared bond with her. And yet, as they begin to investigate the Duke of Trenchard's murder to clear her name, they realize she is harboring more than one secret. Unraveling those secrets was a lot of the fun of writing the book.

What are your favorite books involving governesses and nannies? Do you think about the contemporary parallels when reading or writing about historical characters who care for children?

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25 May 2015

A Rose By Any Other Name (revisited)

Rose Lerner has a great name post over on Risky Regencies, so I thought I'd repost mine today as an additional resourse.

One of the things writers always seem to be discussing is names. Especially historical writers, but I think this applies equally across the board. You want your characters to have distinct and appropriate names, but when you’re writing an historical novel you don’t want to have Princess Brandi tramping about. I keep lists of names that I run across in historical documents, in non-fiction books about my period, etc.

Recently, prompted by a question on a discussion loop that I’m on I made a list of all the names in Who's Who in Late Hanoverian Britain and my 1779 edition of the Peerage. Mostly the same names show up over and over and over:

William

John

George

Henry

Thomas

Charles

Then we have a few names, which while no where near as popular as those above, still show up quite a bit:

Frances/Francis

Edward

Samuel

Richard

James

Robert

Frederick

Philip

Then there are a smattering of names that still seem "normal", but show up only once or twice:

David

Adam

Jeremy

Joseph

Edmund

Gilbert

Daniel

Arthur

Harry

Hugh

Hugo

Douglas

Basil

And then there are the fun ones, many of which seem like surnames used as first names to me:

Cuthbert

Horatio

Theobald

Granville

Richmal

Sydney

Spencer

Rowland

Peregrine

Heneage

Washington

Vere

Willoughby

Anne-Holles (!) yes, first name for a man

Sackville

Brownlow

Spencer

I’d guess that the vast majority of the writers I know are choosing names from this third set. As readers how do you feel about names? Do you care if half the heroes are named Henry or Thomas (as they probably would have been in real life), or do you like our penchant for the unusual?

Which of these two statements sums up your feeling:

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet?

A rose by any other name would wither and die?

03 May 2015

Dolls & Storytelling




 

Recently my daughter Mélanie and I were at the Stanford mall, passing some time before heading to a party nearby. I worked in a café for a while, then we decided to walk around. We passed by the America Girl Doll store which I’ve been resisting visiting, both there and our recent visit to New York, mostly because I was afraid *I* would want to buy everything in the store. But the afternoon was warm, the store was right there, air conditioned and inviting. I asked Mel if she wanted to go in.  She did.

Mélanie has three Götz dolls from Pottery Barn Kids, which are the same size as the American Girl dolls. We had one of them with us that day, Laura. ( Mélanie still lets me name most of her toys. Usually I resort of literary characters, my own or others. Laura is name for Laura Dudley, governess to the Rannoch children in my series and a central character in my forthcoming The Mayfair Affair).  One of the American Girl dolls is from 1812. I couldn’t resist her fabulous collection of Regency clothes. Fortunately, Mélanie was excited when i asked her if she wanted to pick out an outfit for Laura “like the clothes in Mummy’s books.” (I’m not sure what I’d have done if instead she’d asked for an outfit from the 1970s :-). Mélanie selected the pelisse and hat above. Which is perfect, because in The Mayfair Affair Laura Dudley wears a dark blue pelisse trimmed with black braid. Laura Dudley is titian-haired and considerably older (35) than Laura the doll, but above is a glimpse of an ensemble not too far off from what she wears in the book.

We wandered through the rest of the store, drinking in the detailed worlds. In addition to dolls and doll clothes, there were several rooms or other settings to go with different dolls, including a beautifully detailed Regency era parlor. Before we left, I checked the price, so I’d know if it was possibility for a birthday or Christmas. Only to find it was well over half off. Which meant it was affordable and most likely discontinued. 


Needless to say, we left with the parlor. I was going to keep it for the next gift occasion. But when we got home from the party and Mélanie was asleep, I couldn’t resist setting it up. And then I couldn’t deists keeping it up, Mélanie loves it. It’s better than doll house because she can sit down in it herself and play so that ti’s almost like a playhouse. I can envision scenes from my books happening within those pale blue walls. It’s funny, in The Mayfair Affair several of the rooms in different houses are blue; I was actually going to change some, until I decided it was a nice commentary that the color runs through the lives of different characters, in difference social classes. It seems to go with the period.

When I posted about Laura’s pelisse on my own website, I learned that several readers of my books also love dolls. A lively and fascinating discussion ensued. Perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that people who like historical fiction would also like dolls, particularly period dolls. I loved acting out stories with my dolls when I was little. I often think that I do the same thing now, I just write stories down (and now that I’m, a mummy i get to act them out with dolls as well :-).







Are you a doll enthusiast? Readers, do you connect it to your love of period fiction? Writers, have you ever found inspiration from dolls and doll furniture and accessories?

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