History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

04 April 2007

Casting a wide net, with Anna Campbell

Or should that be casting a net widely? If you saw my interview earlier in the week, you’ll know I’m a voracious and omnivorous reader. I’ll read anything, even the back of the milk carton if I’m really stuck. It’s amazing what you can find out on the back of a milk carton!

Recently, someone asked me where I got my ideas and I answered ‘everywhere’ which is true. Something that often sparks ideas is reading nonfiction based outside the Regency. I read a lot within the Regency period too - I’m currently in the middle of Men of Honor by Adam Nicolson about the Battle of Trafalgar, a book well worth a look.

But I want to talk about those ideas that come from left field. Those ideas that catch my interest and start me asking, “What if that happened in the Regency? What would be the implications?”

One of the germs of my courtesan story was The Glitter and the Gold by Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan. It’s the autobiography of the Vanderbilt heiress who became the Duchess of Marlborough in 1895. It’s a long time since I read it – I borrowed it from a friend. But I still remember Consuelo’s description of visiting Monte Carlo in the Belle Epoque and seeing the grandes horizontales, the famous courtesans of the day. The one who really captured my imagination was La Belle Otero. You will see why if you read the Wikipedia entry about her:


Another woman who really appealed to me was Catherine ‘Skittles’ Walters who was famous in the Victorian period both for her reputation as a demimondaine and also for her innate style. I’m writing another courtesan story and Skittles is with me as I create my heroine. Skittles was smart and brave and never kissed and told which is pretty classy, given who she was kissing, including the future Edward VII. I always get a kick out of the fact that she had herself sewn into her riding habits (she was a famous horsewoman) to show off her amazing figure. Here’s the wikipedia entry for her:


Another woman who inspired my current heroine is the French writer George Sand (Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin – and with a name like that, you can see why she plumped for George!). I was a dedicated piano student for most of my school life and of course, Chopin featured strongly in my education. If you’re into Chopin, poor George is something of a villain. But since then, I’ve found out more about this amazing woman who was a feminist before her time, who wore men’s clothing and smoked (shocking!) and made her living writing. And she died in the arms of her much younger lover at the age of 72. Go, George!

It’s been fascinating reading about these women although only George Sand lived close to the era I’m writing about (she was born in 1804 and my current story is set in 1826). They all had attributes that were easily transferred to a notorious Regency courtesan, the glamour, the independence, the courage, the sheer street smarts.

So thinking about this subject has left me with a few questions I’d love your thoughts on. Have you ever read anything in a book and transposed the situation to another time or place and wondered how it would all work out? Are there areas of the Regency you’d like to see explored more often? What do you admire in a heroine?

The best answer gets a signed copy of Claiming the Courtesan, my debut release from Avon which was released on 27th March.


Blogger Unknown said...

Great post, Anna! The idea for my second book started with the scandalous "Madame X" portrait of Virginie Gautreau by Sargent. I shifted it back into the 18th century and was off and running. My third book started with the idea of the memoirs of the Regency courtesan Harriet Wilson, again, shifted back to the 18th century.

You have seen Children of the Century and Impromptu, haven’t you? Both films are must sees for anyone with a thing for George Sand.

8:36 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I've started collecting a file on Catherine Skittles-Walters. Very interesting horsewoman, very savy businesswoman, too.

I think some love letters written to her by a member of the peerage have been recently released by the family. I read them somewhere on the web a while ago.

She, uh, certianly had the knack for keeping her lovers strung along! For years! The word "whupped" comes to mind. LOL!

I would have loved to see her ride!

8:45 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm another George Sand fan. Haven't known how to use her yet, but I did steal part of her name, for my hero Joseph Dupin in The Bookseller's Daughter. (I suspect that all my little thefts will be revealed, if this history-savvy blog continues long enough.)

8:49 AM  
Blogger Anna Campbell said...

Kalen, I just looked up the Sargent painting. It's amazing, isn't it? Quite creepy in a sexy sort of way. This is why I love History Hoydens - I never come away from this blog without something that sparks an idea. Harriet Wilson is interesting, isn't she? She always strikes me as more raucous tomboy than femme fatale. How great that you use a similar 'transposing' technique.

I've seen Impromptu but never heard of COTC. I'll have to check it out. My idea for my current heroine is based on a photo I saw way back in primary school (as I said, I was a VERY serious piano student!) of George Sand in men's clothes with a cigar in one hand. She just looked like she owned the world which impressed even my pre-pubescent self!

Kathrynn, I would have loved to have seen Skittles ride too. It's like I would have loved to have been at the premiere of Rite of Spring. Time travel would be fun as long as I didn't have to live in an age where women had no legal rights! There's a wonderful quote that might even be included in that wikipedia link about how people lined up to see her and just dismissed the duchesses and the marchionesses. The crowds were there to see the true style leader, Skittles.

Pam, I love picking up these little thefts!

Actually, speaking of little thefts, this one always gives me a giggle. I couldn't come up with a name for my current hero for love nor money. Every possible title I got for him (he's an Earl, but of where?) was either too similar to a real name or had been recently used in a historical romance. Then I was reading a book about Victorian London and they were talking about building the London sewers. One of the outfall stations is at a place in Essex called Erith. Hmm, I thought, I rather like that! To make it worse, Erith is apparently Saxon for "wet muddy place" which sure suits a sewerage outfall spot! So I have a gorgeous, alpha earl named after a sewerage pumping station! Glamorous, huh?

9:41 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

The Earl of Sewage. LOL!

CotC (also known as Les Enfants du siècle) is fab. Juliette Binoche is George Sand. It's set before Impromptu, and is about her affair with Alfred de Musset. There's a scene where de Musset has a fight with his older brother about Sand that I find simply amazing.

10:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love everything about the Regency era, and quite frankly have probably shifted ideas around without meaning to--research overload will do that.

What is most important to me in a heroine is seeing her recognize the enormous impact that love has in her life, and how it helps her to acknowledge both her strengths and her weaknesses. I like a flawed heroine, especially when you are left with the sense that she would have discovered all these wonderful things about herself without the hero-- he just makes the discovery so much more enjoyable!

Goodness, that's quite the run-on sentence. :)

10:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating post. I too love "Impromptu" but haven't seen (and obviously must find) "Children of the Century". I'm constantly taking ideas from books I read or movies/tv shows/plays/operas I watch and seeing if I can recast them in the context of the the Regency/Napoleonic world I write about. "Daughter of the Game" (which has been retitled "Secrets of a Lady" for the reissue) began with the idea of a Len Deighton-type spy story set in the Regency. And my favorite tv shows--The X-Files Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias--definitely influence my 19th-century set books, though it probably isn't immediately obvious.

12:16 PM  
Blogger Anna Campbell said...

Kalen, COTC sounds great. I think the French do great historical movies. Somehow they convey this feeling of authenticity without making everybody act like they're constipated. There's a film called Ridicule that is just brilliant.

Gillian, that run-on sentence made perfect sense to me! And I agree with you - I like reading about people with flaws. Perhaps because I have so many myself ;-)

Tracy, interesting about Len Deighton and Daughter of the Game. I think it's those weird juxtapositions that often give us the most intriguing possibilities. As I said on Tuesday's post, my current book is a Regency noir Affair to Remember. I was idly thinking about those characters in darker terms than they're presented in the movie and then pictured them in a Regency setting and hey, there I had an idea for a new book. Goulash Guy (sorry, Annie West!) was Tristan and Isolde in the Habsburg Empire. Often I think the writer is the only one aware of the connections but that doesn't really matter, does it, if the story is working?

1:29 PM  
Blogger alissa said...

The regency era always was enthralling for me and the heroine who has spunk, talent and ability and who isn't afraid to go out into the world and express herself. But she can also be attractive and appealing to men who treat her with kindess and respect. It would be interesting to have a woman be a successful businesswoman who can run a business and manage her social life and be accepted for all these wonderful and special abilities

2:54 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

It would be interesting to have a woman be a successful businesswoman who can run a business and manage her social life and be accepted for all these wonderful and special abilities

The question is, accepted by whom? Most Regency-set romances deal with the upper-class, and people of this class did not "work" by definition. So it’s hard to have a heroine who runs a business and is “accepted” for it (unless you write about lower class characters, which is a hard sell).

3:32 PM  
Blogger Anna Campbell said...

Alissa, thank you for your comment. Kalen, I absolutely agree with you. I've had people ask me why I always write about the upper classes and my answer is that in the Regency, the upper classes were the ones with the most freedom so they give you the most room to move with your story. In Claiming the Courtesan, my heroine is from a poor tenant-farming family and when she is left destitute at fifteen, her choices are terrifyingly limited. That was what I found interesting about her (and about the real courtesans I read about), that they bartered what assets they had and triumphed. Perhaps not forever for most of them, but certainly for a time.

4:21 PM  
Blogger J said...

I've always been quite fascinated by stories of mistresses or concubines who wield great influence and power in their times like Madame de Pompadour. What truly went on behind the screens? They didn't get to their position on mere beauty alone. There must be verve, intelligence, and no small amount of shrewdness. I would love to see an author attempt to make someone like that a compelling heroine in a romance novel.

6:48 PM  
Blogger Anna Campbell said...

Jennybrat, what a great post. I think Madame du Pompadour was a fascinating woman. There's a really interesting biography of her that's getting a bit long in the tooth now by Nancy Mitford who also wrote the Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. What I gathered is that MdeP was anything but a sex kitten - but she was clever and had exquisite taste and was obviously someone it would have been fun to know. She was more Louis XV's friend than his mistress for most of their relationship. I love these funny little quirks of history - it's never quite as the cliches would have you think!

8:27 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Madame de Pompadour was a far cry from a low-born woman who made her fortune by becoming a man's plaything. She was an aristo who caught the king’s eye (and who was then savvy enough to parlay that into something).

I’m with you on loving the idea of a lowborn courtesan who succeeds in making something of her life. In fact, the book I’m working on now it about just such a woman. One of my favorite books with such a heroine is Julia Ross’s Games of Pleasure. Mary Balogh’s The Secret Pearl isn’t bad, either.

8:15 AM  
Blogger Anna Campbell said...

Kalen, I haven't read Games of Pleasure although it's on my bookcase (I'm a Julia Ross fan from way back - she's such a great writer) or the Secret Pearl. I think my favorite courtesan book is Beauty by Judith Ivory. Really worth a look!

One of the things that amuses me about MdeP is that she was born Jeanne Poisson which basically means Jane Fish. If she can rise to the top with a name like that (although perhaps because of the fish thing, rising to the top wasn't that hard for her - groan!), anyone can!

10:39 AM  
Blogger pearl said...

Dancing with Clara by Mary Balogh has an unusual situation which I think portrays the heroine in a wonderful light. She is capable, intrepid and has the strength of chracter to compete as an equial with a dialogue and banter that is smart. But I could see this in another time and place easily, With Katherine Hepburn and spencer Tracy in the 1950's as the couple with the similar problems and future.

11:03 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

What I admire most in a heroine is the capability for blooming where she is planted.

11:46 AM  
Blogger Anna Campbell said...

Pearl, I must check out that book. It sounds great - I love witty banter! And Lynna, I loved your comment. Thank you. What a lovely way to phrase it.

12:35 PM  
Blogger joelle said...

Regencies have always held a great appeal for me. The era represents a society that can converse with wit and humor and retain the attraction. Women were clever conversationalists whose brains were not in short supply. In fact there were heroines whose lives intersected with the lower classes in order to seek fulfilment and made the best of their lives but were still discontented with their lot. In a Georgette Heyer novel, there was an impulsive heroine who was the equal of any man. There were plenty of suppressed women walking around during the 1940's until the war began and then they were permitted to outshine the men.

4:58 PM  
Blogger principessa said...

I think that The Regency novels are wonderful! For many reasons. I enjoy that era for the lighthearted repartee, the wit and the smart humor throughout. There were feisty, independent heroines who were always trying to make the best of the rules of the day. Many stretched it to the limit, were well educated and talented in a multifaceted way but just could not permit themselves the freedom. Regencies focus upon courtship, and rely upon intelligent conversation and society. This is meaningful and has depth. More emphasis on talk rather than relying on action. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell on His Girl Friday is an example of this relationship in our day and age. That is our modern world of the pre-1960's.

5:50 PM  
Blogger Anna Campbell said...

Joelle and Principessa, I can see you're both fans of witty Regencies too. Thank you for your comments. Do you know Loretta Chase's work? Her books will have you laughing aloud and yet she stays really true to the feeling of the period. And with that, there's plenty of heart so it touches your emotions as well as your funny bone. I find that with Jane Austen too - she's funny and ironic and clever but I really CARE what happens to those characters too. But then, I suppose that's why she's JANE AUSTEN!

9:28 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Architecture was one of the hottest fields in the Regency and yet it remains one of the least explored.

With regards to transposing events in historym, other than a few years here and there, I'm a little leery about it all, because then it walks a fine line between artistic license and historical inaccuracy.

I would love to see the expression on the editor's face if I were to submit a proposal for a cheroot-smoking heroine like George Sand. History notwithstanding, my m.s. will get thrown away so fast, it'll make the circular file spin.

3:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, coming in WAY late here, but I'd like to add Rosa Bonheur to the list. I've always wanted to write a biographical fiction novel of her life.

And, coincidentally, I used Sargent's Madame X painting in my second novel, a mainstream set in punk rock NYC.

I always used to catch flak for saying I thought Sargent had to be gay because of his tremendous handling of fabric in his paintings. Turns out I was right. :-)

10:15 PM  
Blogger Anna Campbell said...

Keira, architecture! What a great idea. Actually, I think I should explain what I mean by transposing. I don't mean changing history, for example making Jack the Ripper a Regency character or putting the Battle of Waterloo in 1812. What I mean is looking at something that happened in a certain period and then asking myself what would that have been like if a similar event had happened in the Regency. So I thought about George Sand and her liberated attitudes and thought what if I gave those attitudes to a famous courtesan (not at all unhistorical - from what I can gather, Harriet Wilson and shame were complete strangers).

Jane, do you know I'd never heard of Rosa Bonheur? I've just looked her up. Wow! I LOVE this blog!

12:09 AM  
Blogger J said...

May I suggest Mata Hari, a controversial dancer/courtsean as a source of inspiration? While I personally doubt she was involved in espionage, it would make for an interesting angle in a story set during the Napoleonic Wars or an alternative future. A mysterious heroine possessing her flamboyant, seductive ways, her talent for exotic dancing, and her secrets combined with a sympathetic motive would be very complex and interesting indeed.

10:12 PM  
Blogger Ai Yin said...

though i might be a little too late, i would like to add my two cents worth. most of my romances are historicals and regencies, and I often transpose those situations into modern 21st century (since I'm currently in London it is easier to do so). Like when I'm in Bond Street, I would think of Honoria shopping for clothes at Celestine, and I would imagine what would really happen to Devil if it were 21st century London, as opposed to 19th century London in Devil's Bride (by Stephanie Laurens). I would often compare both times and wonder if things have changed in 200 years, or not.

As for heroines, I think I really look for the spark in them. Especially those strong enough to go head-to-head with men in the world of men, and actually having the intelligence to back up their words, not just argue for the sake of arguing. What defines a heroine is the same as what defines a hero: that they are brave enough to stand up for what they believe is right and also to say "I'm sorry" when they're wrong.

4:36 PM  
Blogger Anna Campbell said...

Oh, Jennybrat, what an interesting idea. Made me think of an absolutely ANCIENT Jeanette Macdonald film called The Firefly where she was a spy and a flamenco dancer (I think - it's years since I saw it). But she falls in love with a French officer and man, does that bring in some conflict.

Ai Yin, really interesting answer. I find when I visit London, I have this sort of Regency ghost that walks with me at the same time as I'm on the modern streets too.

9:52 PM  
Blogger J said...

Wow, Anna, are you some sort of old movie buff too? I'd never have heard of this film if not for you. Imdb describes Firefly as a musical movie. It sounds like a really interesting tangle!

The title reminds me of a totally unrelated French film "Firelight" set in the Victorian era. To pay her father's debts, the heroine agrees to bear a child for an anonymous wealthy English man. Years later, she was hired as a governess to a little girl, who turned out to be her daughter and yet she's not supposed to acknowledge her. What if instead of becoming a governess, she went on to become a famous courtesean? What then are her possibile choices, when she comes face to face with the man and her child again?

11:06 PM  

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