History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

27 February 2008

Follow that Shallop!

The hardest things to recapture in writing historical fiction are often the ones we take the most for granted in our daily lives. The presence of servants, for example. When even minor households had at least a servant or two (and by minor, we’re talking very minor here) and major households had a few dozen, you have a very different view of privacy than that we hold in our modern world where the live-in servant is more the anomaly than the norm.

But what I had on mind today was another commonplace that isn’t at all commonplace for us: the difference in modes of transportation. I’m not just talking about horses and carriages in place of automobiles, although goodness only knows that makes a great difference in terms of the look, smell, and sound of a scene (not to mention that you would have more ubiquitous servants perched at places where one would never have extraneous characters perched on a car), but the use of water as a major means of conveying people both within and between cities.

Up until the middle of the nineteenth century, the Thames was a major artery not just for commerce but for casual travel, both within and without London. There’s a reason so many great houses, both within London and on the Thames, have water stairs, leading down to the river. It was the equivalent of going down to one’s garage. For those without a great house, there were the public stairs, scattered all over the city, where you could hop aboard an open boat for a cheap ride across the river.

Not only were boats faster, they were safer. While the river did have its own brigands, one was generally in less danger from waterborne thieves than the footpads and highwaymen who stalked the streets and high roads. (As an interesting side note, the first police force in London was not Peel’s Metropolitan Police but a special Thames River force formed thirty-one years earlier, in 1798. While this started as a private endeavor, it was transformed into a public agency by the Marine Police Bill of 1800).

A whole vocabulary developed around the different types of transport on the river. For a few pence, you could take a sculler, the smallest of the lot, manned by one oarsman. For a bit more, you could have a place on one of the wherries, which had two boatmen and seated five. If you were being really grand, you could sail down the river in a shallop, a barge rowed by six to eight rowers with a canopied cabin—or tilt, as it was called—either in the middle or towards one end.

It wasn’t just London, of course, that relied on river transport. In Paris, you can still see the water stairs leading down to the Thames, just as, in the American South, plantations often featured river entrances, where guests could sail in and dock rather than forcing their way down uncertain roads. Even my own native Manhattan boasts its water stairs; fewer than a hundred years ago, Rosario Candela designed 1 East End Avenue to include a set of marble stairs leading down to a dock for the yachts of the tenants. It’s a notion any number Georgian nobleman would have taken for granted.

Having my characters travel by boat in preference to carriage is one of those small choices by which I remind myself how different their world could be.

Which elements of daily life in the past do you find most surprising or alien?

25 February 2008

The Many Sides of the Peninsular War

The Peninsular War was a multi-sided conflict filled with moral ambiguities. Two countries, England and France, played out their own conflict in a third, Spain, while different Spanish factions fought for different visions of the future of Spain. Though perhaps not as well known as Napoleon's Russian campaign or Waterloo, the Peninsular War played a major role in the Napoleonic Wars. It also plays figures prominently in a number of novels. Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series brings the events of the war vividly to life (as does the fabulous television adaptation with Sean Bean). Georgette Heyer's The Spanish Bride is based on the memoirs of the British Harry Smith who married a young Spanish woman named Juana during the war. The war plays a role in the back story of a number of Regency-set novels, including my own Secrets of a Lady. I spent quite a bit of time researching the Peninsular War for Secrets and also for an earlier book, Dark Angel (co-written with my mom as Anna Grant), which took place largely in Spain and Portugal. Lately I've been doing some additional reading on the events of the war for the Fraser Correspondence section on my website, which features letters between Charles and Mélanie and other characters in my books. I realized that in writing about their adventures on the Peninsula, I had to know exactly where they were in which month as the events of the war played out.

In 1808 Napoleon Bonaparte, determined to enforce his Continental System (prohibiting import of British goods), manipulated both Charles IV and his son Ferdinand into abdicating from the throne of Spain. Napoleon then installed his brother Joseph as King of Spain. The Spanish Bourbon monarchy had been notoriously corrupt and repressive. Joseph Bonaparte instituted many progressive reforms. A number of Spaniards, particularly intellectuals, supported him as the best hope for reform of the government. However, a strong popular opposition to the French occupation sprang up from the first. Bands of guerrilleros fought the French fiercely throughout the war.

The British sent an expeditionary force under Sir Arthur Wellesley to support the anti-French resistance. Wellesley scored several quick victories. Joseph Bonaparte fled Madrid and the French evacuated Portugal, which they had also occupied under the terms of the Convention of Cintra, between the British Hew Dalrymple and the French Androche Junot. Aware of the gravity of the situation, Napoleon took command of the French forces in Spain himself. The French retook Madrid. Sir John Moore, who had replaced Wellesley as commander of the British forces, was killed at the Battle of Corunna. The British were forced to retreat to the coast and evacuate. Supply lines collapsed, the commissariat could not keep the troops adequately provisioned, and the retreating British forces, starving and in disarray, pillaged the Spanish countryside to horrifying effect (events which play a key role in the Mélanie’s back story in my book Secrets of a Lady).

In April, 1809, Arthur Wellesley returned to the Peninsula to re-take command of the British forces. His victory over the French at Opporto on 12 May forced the French to withdraw from Portugal once again. For the next four years, the French, the British, the Spanish resistance army, the afrancesados (the Spanish loyal to Joseph Bonarpare’s regime), and the guerrilleros (who resisted the French) fought across Spain. It was a particularly bloody war (as is so eloquently immortalized in Goya’s paintings) with atrocities committed on all sides.

In November 1812 (when key events in Secrets of a Lady take place, shown in flashback), the British were wintering in cantonments near the Spanish/Portuguese border, preparing for the spring campaigning season. The British had scored a number of victories in 1812, at Badajoz and Salamanca, but the French had forced the British to evacuate Burgos in September. The events of 1813 proved decisive. On 21 June, the British under Wellesley (now Viscount Wellington) defeated the French under Marshal Jourdan at Vitoria. The French evacuated Spain (a number of Spanish treasures, packed up by Joseph Bonaparte’s retreating court, disappeared in the aftermath of Vitoria; many no doubt found their way into the pockets of British soldiers; a number of items were never recovered, including the Spanish crown; lots of wonderful story ideas there, I've always thought).

Wellington’s forces crossed the border into France on 5 October. Napoleon, who had suffered such heavy losses in the Russian campaign, was forced to abdicate and was exiled to the island of Elba. While the fate of post-Napoleonic Europe was being debated at the Congress of Vienna, Napoleon escaped from Elba, took command of the army that rallied to his cause, and fought his final battle against the Allied forces, under the command of Wellington (who had been created Duke), at Waterloo.

With the French gone from Spain, Ferdinand was restored as King, under a new, extremely progressive constitution. He proceeded to repudiate the constitution and abolish freedom of the press. Many of those who had fought in the Spanish resistance had wanted the French out of their country but hadn’t wanted a return of the old Bourbon monarchy either. They now tried to rally support against King Ferdinand. But, as Charles comments early in Secrets of a Lady, the British were quick to turn their backs on their former Spanish allies who dreamed of a new Spain. Many of those in power in Britain (such as Lord Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary, and Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary), saw the specter of the French Revolution in any move toward reform at home or abroad. Preserving the status quo was the key to preserving stability for these men and for others in Continental Europe such as the Austrian Chancellor Metternich.

22 February 2008

Urban Mysteries

I’m a big-city sort of person.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, longtime resident of San Francisco. Except for college, some hippie wanderlust, and a miserable suburban adolescence that’s best passed over with a shudder, I’ve spent most of my life in cities and am glad of it.

So when it came to writing my first romance, The Bookseller’s Daughter, I sent my heroine from Languedoc and Provence to Paris for the novel’s denouement. To Paris, where in 1785 revolutionary sentiment was simmering, and where everything I love in cities was (and still is) writ large:

Art, style, crowds, diversity.

Street life. Small business. Upward mobility (or so I like to hope).


And while I know full well that rampant urban consumerism can hardly be depended upon to give way to progressive social change, I think you can make the case for Enlightenment Paris. As (not surprisingly) did my heroine, Marie-Laure, in these meditations:

In stuffy, provincial Montpellier… you always knew who everybody was: merchant or magistrate; servant, shopgirl, or laborer. You knew by their dress, but also by their bearing. Somehow, you’d intuit a person’s place in the scheme of things as soon as you saw him or her on the street.

Whereas in Paris, decoding the identities of the mass of people rushing past her was like trying to read the patchwork tapestry of posters, playbills, and announcements pasted on the walls. New ones half covered old ones, bits were torn off or worn beyond recognition; you couldn’t get a fix on any single reality. In this city of actors and strivers and seekers -- of shoppers -- everyone was busy patching or replacing the roles life had handed them. Or trying to piece together something new, striking, and original, at the best possible price.
I still enjoy that intuition Marie-Laure and I shared about modern urban life: all those possibilities to remake your identity, and at the best price possible; mastering that particularly modern urban competence of keeping everybody guessing who you really are.

And I was forcefully and fascinatingly reminded of it during the last few weeks, since I’ve begun auditing a class at San Francisco State University in Detective Fiction - or to give it its full, formal title: “Mystery, Modernity, and Identity: Anglo-American Detective Fiction from the 1840s to the 1990s”.

Because what I’ve been learning in this terrifically interesting course is that it was the rapid advent of nineteenth century urbanism that created a new fictional genre - from the “urban mystery” to the detective story (the term was invented by Poe). And that it was exactly the sort of urban flexibility and fluidity of social role and appearance that made “detection” -- “reading” your fellow city-dwellers - a new and sensational concern. That fellow in a flash suit might be an embezzler. And as for that the smartly-dressed lady strolling in the Bois de Boulogne: who knows what sort of a past she had before she married her wealthy husband?

We’re reading, and will be reading some classic authors (Poe, Hammett, Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Cristie, Herman Melville’s great story “Benito Cereno” - even Gertrude Stein attempted a detective novel, I learned). But we’re also be reading some lesser authors - at least in terms of what we think of as literary quality - who were wildly popular in their day. And we’re learning about important stops on the way to the modern detective story - the gothic novel of the Georgian and Regency periods, and the wildly popular “urban mystery,” of the 1840s.

Because before Poe created C. Auguste Dupin, the first detective hero (and one who applied himself to the crimes the Paris police couldn’t solve) “Urban Mystery” fiction exploited a generation’s fears of the dark, crowded, often pestilential conurbations that had expanded so rapidly with the rise of industrialism, and which swarmed with people who might be - anybody, even murderers.

The overarching urban mystery was how such places had come to be.

What my heroine Marie-Laure had seen as a dazzling site of self-creation, the heroes of urban mysteries began to see as a terrifying site of impenetrable masquerade, limitless conspiracy, and rampant hypocrisy (often in the figures of self-serving clergymen).

Eugene Sue had begun the vogue for such fiction with his 1842, which was read by everybody and counted Karl Marx among its reviewers. Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris is all but forgotten now, but it sold in huge numbers, published in magazine installments with suitable cliff-hanger endings -- and I’m told it remains one of the most widely read novels ever. ) The Mysteries of Paris spawned a host of imitators: there were Mysteries of London - even to Cincinnati, Ohio and Fitchburg, Massachusetts.

Our professor pointed out that the term “mystery” comes laden with earlier meanings: from the classical tradition, a sense of initiation into occult knowledge (as in the Eleusinean mysteries of ancient Greece), from the Gothic novel, a sense of the return of the repressed, of buried horrible family crimes.

In an urban setting, the mystery motif took the perversely pleasurably form of allowing the reader to feel herself privy (an initiate, if you will) to secret understandings (or perhaps urban legends) of an underworld, a crime hierarchy presided over by an evil genius. In the urban mystery we’re reading, George Thompson’s 1848 City Crimes, an unsavory character called The Dead Man presides over just such an underworld - literally an underworld, btw, of buried caves and waterways crawling with rats and reptiles (presaging that deathless Manhattan urban myth of the alligators in the sewer system).

Copping a detail from an earlier urban mystery and scooping Batman’s Joker by almost a century, urban villains like Thompson’s Dead Man deform their faces with acid - to hide their identities, or to reveal the inner horror of their souls? The ambiguity remains powerful even now.

Thompson (who also wrote in magazine serial form) lards his action with details ranging from gory to noxious to downright nauseating; his style is cheap, sensational, redundant, prurient (much is made of every lady’s “ivory globes”); his writing, for all that, is wonderfully, bracingly, compulsively readable. Things keep happening; just when you think he can’t top himself he does.

As a writer in a popular genre, I tip my hat to him; as a reader, I award him a grin and an appreciative shudder, and then turn to Wilkie Collins’ deeply comforting and beautifully crafted The Moonstone, granddaddy of a long line of genteel English country-house detective novels.

Because - although we haven’t discussed this in class yet - it's clear to me that one of the paradoxes of the detective genre is this movement from city to country. My guess as to why this was inevitable, is that at least in England, for much of that country’s history land was always the source of wealth and power, and the centuries of culture that surround this are too rich and dense, engaging and downright wonderful not to yield their own mysteries.

I’ve posted here already about Pemberley as one of the Great Good Places in the history of the English novel and of the romance as well. And yet Pemberley also had its secrets, didn’t it, to be revealed to Lizzy Bennet in the course of the development of the romance plot?
For myself, I discovered the power of the mythology of the English country house story when, in early versions of Almost a Gentleman, I tried to limit the action to London and discovered that I couldn’t - because…

But you’ll have to come back for the next installment of my own discoveries in this wonderful sister genre.

While as for questions: Do you read mysteries? Which ones do you especially like? How do they compare with your romance favorites? And for those of you out there (Tracy?) who combine the suspense element with the romantic, how do you see these issues?

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20 February 2008

Heavens to Betsy! [Ross]

Although I write Georgian-era novels, I’ve also always been a fan of our own 18th century history, even though I have been reliably informed (by my agent) that American colonial era stories don’t sell, except perhaps in YA fiction.

The Betsy Ross House

I’ve had the opportunity lately to revisit Philadelphia, where (particularly in the Society Hill neighborhood) on a cobbled street like Delancey—or on S. American, a barely carriage-wide lane—each with Federal era homes whose exteriors are lovingly preserved by law and landowners, you are instantly transported to the world of panniers and periwigs, of knee breeches and buckled shoes.

What better time than Presidents’ Weekend to pay a call on Betsy Ross, the seamstress (and munitions manufacturer in her lean days!) at her 1740 Philadelphia Rowhouse on Arch Street. The building has been restored to ca. 1777, when it is said that George Washington paid a call on Mrs. Ross and asked her to stitch up a flag.

Exterior photo from Wikipedia, obviously taken many decades ago, and before the house on the left was demolished. That area is now the courtyard.

The low-ceilinged rooms are small, the better to heat, I suppose. The sitting room, barely large enough to comfortably accommodate four people, boasts a fireplace lined with blue Delftware tile. Below the street level are examples of the musket balls Betsy made to supply the American militias.

Betsy Ross (b. January 1, 1752) was a Quaker, the eighth of seventeen children, and an entrepreneur when necessity was the mother of invention, to paraphrase her fellow Philadelphian Benjamin Franklin. In 1773 she married John Ross, who was killed in a gunpowder explosion three years later. In 1777, the year of George Washington’s fateful visit, she married Joseph Ashburn and gave him two daughters before he died in a British prison in 1782. A year later, she took a third husband, John Claypoole, and bore him five daughters. Two of her girls, Zilla Asburn and Harriet Claypoole, died as children. John Claypoole passed away in 1817. Betsy ran her business well into her seventies, despite having gone blind in her later years. She died on January 30, 1836 at the age of 84.

I had one of those visceral moments as I watched a talented re-enactor talk to a little knot of visitors clustered in one of the home's modest downstairs rooms about General Washington’s visit and his request for a flag. “Mr. Washington had wanted a six-pointed star,” she said. But she had a technique for folding fabric three times and cutting a perfect five-pointed star with ease and simplicity, so she managed to talk George Washington out of his initial concept in order to fashion something that was not only simpler to effect, but more economical!

Here’s Betsy’s trick, as she demonstrated with a piece of 8 ½ x 11” copy paper:

Step 1: Fold the paper in half so it resembles a book, with the folded side on the left.

Step 1

Step 2: Take the lower left corner and fold it up so that the corner touches the exact center of the top of the sheet of paper. (the angle of this photo is off; the point needs to come exactly to the top edge of the sheet of paper, not end up above it. )

Step 2

Step 3: Take the bottom right point and fold it up toward the upper left, so it lays right on top of the first fold you made (it will look sort of like a paper airplane, but with an extra bit coming out of the top left).

Step 3 (2 views)

Step 4: Take that top left bit that’s sticking up and fold it toward the back side of the paper, away from the first two folds you made. You’ll now have a pointy end.

Step 4

Step 5: Snip off the point at an angle. The closer to the tip you snip, the smaller the star, the farther from the tip, the larger the star.

Step 5

Step 6: unfold what you have just snipped off and—voila—a perfect five-pointed star.

Step 6

'Betsy' was adamant about snipping off the point at an angle, cautioning her rapt audience (okay, I was teary; Lord knows why, maybe an eerie past-life thing. Or maybe it was my head cold acting up) not to make the error of snipping off the tip of the folded paper in a straight line across the paper or—“What shape will thee get when thee unfold it?” she asked?

“A pentagon,” replied a clever woman with obvious visual-spatial acumen.

“Exactly!” 'Betsy' exclaimed. “And Mr. Washington never ordered a pentagon!”

Happy Belated Presidents’ Day!

And now for the spoiler ... the visit to the Besty Ross house was followed by an excursion to Valley Forge, where I got into a conversation with one of the NPS Rangers, an enthusiastic 18th c. history aficionado named Quinn Kess. Quinn and I began to discuss some of Philadelphia's more famous colonial dames, beginning with Benedict Arnold's wife Peggy Shippen. We segued to the topic of Besty Ross and her stellar idea about starmaking, and Quinn lowered her eyes and said “We think now that that may be a myth.”

So, another too-good-to-be-true slice of history may be fiction after all--and yet "Betsy" is still sharing it with ususpecting and emotionally susceptible tourists. Good enough for a historical fiction writer to ever use?

What do you think? Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever learned about a marvelous bit of historical arcana and were tempted to incorporate it into one of your novels, only to find it exploded? What did you do?

18 February 2008

Why I Love This Blog: Cinnamon Miscellaney

Cinnamon Rolls have been a holiday staple in our house for twenty years. In one of her early books Diane Mott Davidson gave a recipe for “Monster Cinnamon Rolls” and for us it is the definitive recipe. The rolls are the size of a lunch plate and require a space at least 30inches long to roll out the dough.It takes three hours of preparation but the response to it is worth getting up at 5AM. In our food oriented household homemade cinnamon rolls are a labor of love.

Cinnamon was one of the earliest prized spices. Egyptians used it in embalming, the Romans used it as incense and to flavor wine. Apparently it was not used in cooking. There is no mention of cinnamon as a flavoring agent in the extant recipes of the time.

The Spice Trade grew dramatically after Marco Polo’s explorations in the 13th century and was a prime motivator for the period of exploration that lasted for the next five hundred years. Expensive and prized by medieval cooks, cinnamon became the seasoning for many sweet and savory dishes. At the time it was also regarded as a preservative which contributed to its use and popularity. According to the website www.toptropicals.com only one of Magellan’s ships returned from his exploration but that ship carried 26 tons of spices which were enough to pay for the voyage of all five ships that began in his effort to circumnavigate the earth.

From ancient Chinese herbalists to contemporary practitioners of alternative healing, cinnamon is considered as a useful remedy for various malaises, though no one contests the assertion that the “smell is pleasant, stimulates the senses and calms the nerves” (Wikipedia). The Chinese recommended it as a cure for various intestinal distresses as well as flu. There is some preliminary research that validates the historic assertion that cinnamon can add to the effectiveness of insulin, though no clinical trials support this.

The cinnamon tree is native to Sri Lanka. It can grow as high as fifty feet though for agricultural purposes it is usually pruned to less than six feet or into a bush. The spice itself comes from the bark. Originally harvested in the wild it was not until the 16th century that the Dutch then, in control of the Spice Trade and Ceylon, began to cultivate the trees.

Today most of the “cinnamon” sold is Cassia, a milder version of the original Sri Lankan tree spice. It grows in China, Vietnam.

Is there any doubt that the most popular use of cinnamon today is in cinnamon rolls (aka sticky buns). The predecessor of the cinnamon roll, then called bun, is medieval in origin, probably in Northern Europe and further developed in England.

Elizabeth David in her book ENGLISH BREAD AND YEAST COOKERY describes the Chelsea Bun as “Sugary, spicy, sticky and coiled like a Swiss roll…hefty in proposition.” By 1910, the recipe for cinnamon buns called for the sweet dough to be “sheeted out and sprinkled with sugar, cinnamon and currants, rolled up and sliced.” The oversized cinnamon rolls like the ones I make and Cinnabon markets are a relatively recent development.

As a side note the cream cheese frosting that is half the pleasure of the cinnamon roll was not an element of the treat until after 1872 when cream cheese was invented by a dairy farmer in Chester New York.

This blog is a favorite of mine because it helps me rationalize a research boondoggle. I wanted to know if cinnamon rolls could have existed in the Regency. I was pretty sure, but I wasn’t positive. So I started with Google and, as usual and despite a pressing deadline, was carried away into information on cinnamon, the spice trade, alternative medicinal usage, and, yes, the origins of it as one of the definitive taste treats of the 20th century.

What subjects have caught your interest and left you with much more information that you needed? And/or what do you consider to be a definitive taste treat of the 20thcentury?

15 February 2008

Peter Carl Faberge

Peter Carl Faberge is considered to be the premier jeweler of the late 19th century. Under Faberge's leaadership a school of brilliant artisans designed and produced the objets d’art that are his greatest legacy.

Famous for the Imperial Eggs that were Easter gifts given by Czar Alexander III and, his son Czar Nicholas II to their wives (Maria and Alexandra), the Faberge studio also created animals in silver, jade and other semi-precious stones, jewelry, clocks and a range of items that were of practical use raised to a work of art, such as cigarette cases, pen holders and parasol handles.

My interest in Faberge grew from the book The Romanov Ranson by Evelyn Armstrong Anthony first published in 1978. Them novel centers around twelve Faberge Imperial Easter Eggs that disappeared at the time of the Russian Revolution. From my first reading, I have been fascinated by Faberge eggs and his other creations. For years I collected eggs and did research to find out if, indeed, there were twelve eggs unaccounted for. (According to the Forbes Collection there are eight that are unaccounted for. Of those there is no extant rendering of four designs. ) There is the fabulous story of one (non Imperial) Faberge Egg that was destroyed in a domestic argument when the enraged wife threw it at her husband.

Faberge’s Moscow work force once numbered as high as 500 – which included as many as a dozen carpenters who worked full time constructing the individual presentation boxes that held the masterpieces. Faberge functioned much as a film producer, organizing all the elements of a work and then became the director, overseeing the project, making design presentations to his clients. He rarely spent time working on the pieces but all show the influence of his unique style.

Despite the fact that he drew design inspiration from all eras of artistic expression -- Ancient Greece through Neoclassical-- and at the end of his career was a precursor of Art Deco, his work is “instantly recognizable and always original”

Do I have to tell you that I own at least five books on Faberge? The information for this blog came from FABERGE by Greza Von Habsburg, a definitive work that was the catalog accompanying the major Faberge exhibition of 2000. Pictures tell his story best.

My personal favorite are the works with an enamel finish. I am constantly amazed at the depth or “opalescent quality”. The use of paintings under the glaze or complicated cut-out designs in gold paillons fascinate me. How were his jewelers able to achieve such perfection? In the last phase of the process, the worker spent hours and hours of buffing the final coat with a shammy [sic] cloth.

Have you noticed that I am really into things that glitter and shine. (I have written previously on Tiaras) I have no desire to own them. (Okay, I would like one piece of Faberge enamel.) It's the physical beauty that captivates me, not the value. A beautiful day will stir my heart as surely as a work of art or a perfect diamond.

Regarding the illustrations: These four of thousands were chosen to illustrate Faberge's artisans expertise at the enamelling process. The Imperial Easter Egg shown is a "mat white opalescent egg underpainted with a green garlanded tellises and the Cross of St George in red and white." A ribbon in the colors of the order encircles the egg and two medals. Under the medals are portraits of the Czar and his son. It was presented to the Empress in April, 1916.

The dark blue with gold flowers is a detail of an Art Nouveau enameled cigarette case. The detail pattern in the enamel is an example of paillons referred to above.

The enameled miniature sedan chair recalls Louis XVI design. The translucent pink is painted over starburst guilloche ground with gold leaf within opaque white enamel borders. This is one of the most impressive examples of the enamel technique.

So what captivates you? What do you collect? What books have led you to a lifelong interest in some THING or IDEA?

13 February 2008

Heart-Melting Moments

In the discussion following Amanda's wonderful posts last week about Mary Robinson, the talk segued into historical films, and including "That Hamilton Woman" with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. Both Amanda and I mentioned having vivid memories of a scene in which Nelson (Olivier) and Emma Hamilton (Leigh) are sitting together (as I recall in a a tavern/inn) and she's interpreting his expressions. He says Do you know what this one is? As Amanda, put it, "she says, tentatively, Nelson allowing himself to be ... just a LITTLE bit ... happy." And he says, Nelson in love. Sigh.

A heart-melting moment. Which made me think of other heart-melting moments on film and in novels. It occurred to me that that would be a fun blog topic the day before Valentine's Day. But because this is a History Hoydens post, I'm sticking to heart-melting moments in films and books with historical settings (so the books are either historical fiction or books that were actually written in an historical era). And I'm going to talk a bit about the historical context of the scenes. Because most of the scenes that occurred to me aren't grand, sweeping love scenes. They're smaller moments, often, I think, made all the more powerful because the lovers have found ways to express strong emotion in the midst of the social constraints of the era. For instance, in the scene described above, Nelson is a married war hero, Emma is an ambassador's wife, and they are in a public setting. The fact that they find a way to declare their feelings in an understated way to me makes the scene more powerful than if they were alone in a moon-drenched garden.

Here are a few heart-melting moments that immediately sprang to mind (I'm sure I'll think of a bunch more the minute I post this):

Atonement. Both the movie and the book, but different moments from each. The moment that stopped my heart in the book is when Cecilia runs after Robbie and embraces him before the police take him away. I knew a bit about the plot before I read the book, so I knew Robbie was going to be arrested, but I didn't know how Cecilia would react. The fact that she trusts him implicitly, without ever once stopping to question, against the pressures of family, tradition, and social class (not to mention the evidence of her own sister) is incredibly powerful. The more so because Cecilia comes from a world in which family, duty, tradition, and social class carry so much weight. It's a wonderful moment in the film too, but if I had to pick just one heart-melting moment from the movie, my vote would go to the scene where Robbie and Cecilia meet in the café during the war. Cecilia grips his hand and says "Come back to me"--a wonderfully layered phrase given all the many ways she could lose him. I saw the movie with actor and writer friends, and we all commented afterwards on the power of that scene.

Freedom & Necessity. Towards the end of this fabulous, Victorian-set epistolary novel, the hero, James, writes a letter to the heroine Susan. It isn't the least bit flowery, but I think it's one of the two most romantic letters I've ever read in a novel. It's a wonderful expression of raw, naked emotion from a character who doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve, and yet it rings true to the era. I have either too much or not enough to say to you for the inch of candle I have left in my candlestick. You are as dear to me as anything ever seen in this world. When this is done, perhaps you will give me the time and opportunity to show you how much that is.

Captain Wentworth's letter to Anne is the other most romantic letter I've ever read in a novel. A great reminder of the historical importance of letters and letter writing. Letters can be such a wonderful way of capturing emotions that the characters would perhaps not speak aloud. (I find I'm using letters more and more in my own books--I have a whole section of letters between characters on my website and done the "extras" for my two recent reprints in the form of letters). Letters can be difficult to translate to film, but I think the letter scene also works beautifully in the Amanda Root/Ciaran Hinds Persuasion as well.

Locked Rooms. This moment, early on in Laurie King's latest Russell/Holmes mystery, took me by surprise. Russell is having nightmares about her family's death as she and Holmes sail to San Francisco (where she grew up and was living when her family died). Holmes finds her dangerously near the ship rail and pulls her back. Shortly after, he says something along the lines of (unfortunately I can't find my copy of the book, so I'm quoting from memory), that he doesn't think seeing the sun rise in the west would cause his heart to stop. Russell starts to reply, and Holmes adds, The sight of my wife going over the rail of a ship might have done the trick however. It's a powerful statement of emotion, couched with a restraint that is very much characteristic of Holmes (the books may be set in the twenties, but Holmes, as Russell often reminds the reader, is very much a Victorian gentleman). Even the fact that he refers to her as "my wife" (words he had difficulty saying a few books earlier in the series) is significant.

Shakespeare in Love. One of my favorite choices for Valentine's Day viewing. I could pick a dozen different moments (I love you beyond poetry, Write me well, the wonderful (though not precisely heart-melting) moment when Viola says Now I know there are some things better than a play. Even one of yours, and Will frowns as though he's not sure he likes the idea that making love with him is better than one of his plays). But the moment that seems right for this post is when Will and Viola embrace at the end of the performance of Romeo and Juliet while the other actors take their bow and the audience rises to its feet in a stunned standing ovation. The thrill of creative achievement, the bittersweet knowledge of parting. It always make me teary-eyed.

Venetia. One of my favorite Georgette Heyers, and to me the most romantic of her books. Toward the end of the novel, when Venetia has finally convinced Damerel that marrying him is not the worst fate that could befall her, her uncle points out that while Damerel may mean to reform, he may find it difficult to give up his rakish habits. Venetia replies that she doesn't think she would ever know.

"You'd know about my orgies! objected Damerel.
"Yes, but I shouldn't care abut them, once in a while. After all, it would be quite unreasonable to wish you to change all your habits, and I can always retire to bed, can't I?"
"Oh, won't you preside over them?" he said, much disappointed.
"Yes, love, if you wish me to," she replied, smiling at him. "Should I enjoy them?"
He stretched out his hand, and when she laid her own in it, held it very tightly. "You shall have a splendid orgy, my dear delight, and you will enjoy it very much indeed!"

It's a lovely moment, funny, sexy, touching, and it shows precisely why these two people belong together, even if society may raise its brows at the match.

Gaudy Night. The last scene of the book. The only scene I've chosen that actually falls in the "major, definitive, declaration/love scene" category, and even it is expressed in outwardly restrained terms, with the characters speaking Latin, no less. Oddly enough, until I sat down to write this post, I hadn't really considered that it was probably a daunting task for Sayers to write that scene. Readers had waited three books and several years for Peter and Harriet to get together. After that much build up, there's a great risk of the scene seeming flat or overdone or out of character. But it succeeds brilliantly--true the to story and the Oxford setting and to Peter and Harriet as characters.

Now it's your turn. What moments in historical books and films do you find particularly heart-melting?

Happy Valentine's Day!

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11 February 2008

Historical Games

Or maybe I should say historical gambling. I’m working on a book right now that has gambling as a key element. I’m really familiar with gambling during the early 16th century (since I do a lot of 16th century re-enactments; in fact, this post is late because I was at one all weekend *grin*). So I can play Landsknecht, Hazard, Alquerques, etc.

But I don’t know how to play Whist (mores the pity). So what’s a writer to do? I found a few sets of rules, bought a few bottles of wine, and invited a few friends over . . . and hilarity ensued. Whist is not an easy game, but it is a lot of fun.

Wikipedia has simple rules for what I’ll call “normal” Whist and Widows Whist (Three-handed), but the whole point was that I wanted my two characters to play a hand just the two of them. Enter Two-handed Whist!

I love games and bets and intrigues in my books. And finding Two-handed Whist gave me all kinds of ideas . . . and playing it with my friends gave me enough grounding to feel like I can write it believably. Now I just have to master chess. I mean, I know the rules (sort of) but I can't really play. It's a huge failing of mine.

So, am I crazy? Does anyone else enjoy this kind of thing. I love taking my research this far and I hope to sponsor a Whist table at the Beau Monde Chapter of RWA’s annual convention party.

What about period food? I was thinking of including period recipes in my quarterly newsletter, along information about my own attempts at recreating the recipe and how it turned out, or didn't. Does that sound like fun to anyone?

08 February 2008

Mason Jars and Manhunts: The colorful past of Coffeyville, Kansas

The site now known as Coffeyville had been occupied by the Black Dog band of Osage Indians since before the 1800s. It was first settled in 1869 as an Indian trading post, and was later known as Cow Town because it was a shipping point for cattle herds driven from Texas. When Colonel James A. Coffey migrated to the site, a town was laid out and named in his honor. Coffey spoke two Indian languages and was a “free-stater”; twice he was taken prisoner by pro-slave factions.

In 1871 the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad won a three-way race to secure a right-of-way into the rich Indians lands. The Leavenworth, Lawrence & Galveston Railroad followed suit, and Coffeyville grew into a trading and commercial city. From 1870 to 1900 the town flourished as a trading center for the rich farm region and was known as an important grain and flour milling point in the Central West.

About 1900, progressive businessmen recognized deposits of clay, sand, shale, and natural gas. Within the new few years eight glass factories and five brick and tile plants were constructed. By 1901 the town had 5,000 residents, which increased over the next three years to 18,500.

The glass factories closed in 1916, but not before Mason jars were a common household item. Three Coffeyville brick factories manufactured 765,500 bricks every day and shipped them world-wide, where they are still found today, stamped “Coffeeville Kas.” A number of other industries are still active today: Rea Patterson Flour Mill (Bartlett Flour Mill), Sherwin Williams and the National refinery (Farmland Industries).

The Dalton Raid Fiasco occurred on the morning of October 5, 1892. Bob, Grat and Emmet Dalton, Dick Broadwell and Bill Powers decided they would do the unprecedented: rob two banks at the same time. [One is pictured upper right] The Daltons wore disguises and planned to tie their horses between the two banks for an easy getaway, but the street was torn up. They tied them in the alley close to the jail.

Three of the bandits–Grat Dalton, Powers and Broadwell entered the Condon Bank. Bob and Emmet Dalton entered First National. The gang demanded money from the Condon safe, but the clerk told him the safe would not open until 9:30 a.m. It was twenty past nine, and Grat said he’d wait.

That ten minutes gave the alerted townspeople the time they needed to grab guns and ammunition and defend the town. The raid was over in 12 minutes. Four of the Dalton gang were dead, and four citizens were killed in the gunplay. Emmet Dalton, the youngest, survived with 23 gunshot wounds. When he healed, he was given a life sentence in the Kansas penitentiary at Lansing and pardoned after 14 years.

He moved to California and became a real estate agent, author and actor; he died at the age of 66.

Source: Coffeyville Historical Society.

07 February 2008

ALL FOR LOVE, Part Deux: Researching Mrs. Robinson

Call it synchronicity. A few years ago, U.K. publishers brought out three biographies of Mary Robinson within about 18 months of each other, each with its own perspective on Mrs. Robinson’s life. One of them was reviewed in The New York Times, and sparked my interest in the woman known during an entire era as “Perdita.”

I hadn’t heard of Mary Robinson before that. And the sad fact is, that most Americans still don’t know who she was, and in many ways, Mary, for all her flaws (because, as I have to remind readers, she was a human being, not a fictional character) is a role model for women’s empowerment; a feminist before the word was coined. But I have to confess that I was initially drawn to Mary because, like me, she was a redheaded actress turned author.

I read the trio of Mary Robinson biographies, as well as her own very slanted, half-finished memoirs (hey, if you were a huge celebrity telling your own story, you’d make yourself look as saintly as possible in the face of criticism, wouldn’t you). And what I came away with—which is what made me want to give Mary her own place in the sun in the pantheon of popular historical fiction—was that she was an incredible survivor in a world where men called the shots. And she learned the hard way that a girl could never count on a man to be her protector (starting with her father, who definitely fell down on the job)—despite the fact that those were the roles her society had assigned to males and females.

1781 portrait of Mary Robinson by Thomas Gainsborough

Mary Robinson was the rare 18th-century woman to earn her own living at all—and to do so through her art. Honestly, how many women these days are supporting themselves and their kid(s) by doing what they really love to do? And how many of them are in the arts? It’s still not easy for most of us.

When my editor bought the book, she gave me a sort of mental pie-chart to consider, its variously sized “slices” corresponding to the amount of focus she wanted me to devote to the different aspects of Mary’s life, which is why the book has been constructed the way it has. As a reader I sometimes wonder why an author did something; so from the other side of the computer, this research post allows me to share what transpired behind the scenes during the writing process of All For Love.

As I delved deeper into my research, I discovered a couple of challenges. Mary became a celebrated poet (and bestselling novelist) and I wanted to include some of her actual writing in my novel, because what’s the point of writing about a woman who became a famous writer without including any of what made her so? But the more I read of Mary’s poetry, and I read almost everything she ever wrote that saw the light of day, I realized that it’s something of an acquired taste for a 21st century audience. Also, my editor feared that I might alienate the readers with too much poetry, or that it might bring the narrative to a halt, so I had to cherry-pick what to use, and I did choose verses that are more accessible to contemporary readers.

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97; portrait by John Opie)

Mary Robinson became a friend of Mary Wollestonecraft and her husband William Godwin, and took up the “feminist” banner after Wollestonecraft’s death, writing her “Letter to the Women of England,” which is a remarkable treatise in and of itself. But knowing that Mary had in her youth been a celebrated Shakespearean actress and that she (as I do) applied techniques she learned as an actress to her writing, I had to include some of it when I noticed echoes of Shakespeare in that essay. When Mary posited “Is not woman a human being, gifted with all the feelings that inhabit the bosom of man? Has not woman affections, susceptibility, fortitude, and an acute sense of injuries received? Does she not shrink at the touch of persecution? Does not her bosom melt with sympathy, throb with pity, glow with resentment, ache with sensibility, and burn with indignation?” you can just hear Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes…?” speech from The Merchant of Venice.

Another challenge I faced was how to portray the "Green Dragoon" -- the military hero Col. Banastre Tarleton, who was Mary’s lover of fifteen years. Tarleton was no hero to Americans, and although my characters and location are English, our publishers skew their historical fiction titles to American readers. But I was writing from Mary’s POV in a first-person narrative. She saw him as a hero, not as “Butcher Tarleton” and or “Bloody Tarleton,” or “the scourge of the Carolinas” as he was known in the colonies. As the author, I was cheering when during the Revolutionary War (ours) he made an utter cock-up at Waxhaws and the tide turned in the colonists’ favor. Yet Mary was obviously on King George’s side of the conflict.

Banastre Tarleton (1754-1833; portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds)

Tarleton came from a prominent political family in Liverpool, a port city that played a major role in the slave trade to the West Indies. The Tarletons themselves had been enriched by it. Mary harbored Quaker sensibilities, although she was technically an Anglican. As a famous poet, she wrote stirring verses that “humanized” the Africans and she favored abolition. But her heart had been captured by the man who vociferously defended the slave trade in Parliament. Tarleton’s debates with William Wilberforce have been well chronicled. And Mary ghost-wrote many of her lover’s speeches espousing a subject that she herself found abhorrent.

As an author, I had to square the debate between Mary’s heart and her brain, and what it cost her emotionally to write those speeches, especially for a man who blew hot and cold and treated her poorly as often as he was passionate about her. I constantly reminded myself that Mary was a real person; that she actually did these things. Why? This was one instance where I applied my theatre training and as I was “playing” the role of Mary by writing the novel in her voice, I looked for my/her motivation.

It goes back to the title of the novel. Mary violated her own conscience for love; Tarleton was her drug and she couldn’t do without that fix. Sad to say it, but I identified in a big way with a woman whose lover’s politics are the polar opposite of hers, but the passion (when the man finds the wherewithal to display it) is so intense (and, okay, the sex too amazing) to be clearheaded about a lot of the things that are wrong with the relationship. Destructive or not, it’s all-too-human behavior. Been there, done that, disposed of the corset.

I can’t end this post without a little sidebar about Hollywood’s version of Banastre Tarleton, in the interest of verisimilitude. I really hate it when they do this. If you saw the film Amazing Grace, you would have seen Ciaran Hinds cast as “Lord Tarleton,” debating an astonishingly sexy Wilberforce (which in itself is romantic casting). Tarleton was in fact a prominent MP—in the House of Commons. He never was a lord. Hinds’s Tarleton is also missing the wrong two fingers from his right hand, which the character says he lost in Virginia (the battle in which he lost them actually took place in South Carolina). Hinds also didn’t use a Liverpudlian accent. They’re details, and grant it, most American filmgoers haven’t a clue who Banastre Tarleton was, and for that reason the goofs wouldn’t bother them; but in a multi-million-dollar production (and as long as the screenwriters had to research the guy anyway to put him in the film), why not get those details right?

Believe it or not, Tarleton was more accurately depicted in a totally fictional version of the character. Loosely based on Banastre Tarleton, Col. William Tavington, the villain of Mel Gibson’s The Patriot, played to handsome, sneering perfection by Jason Isaacs, both looked a lot like Tarleton, and behaved just as ruthlessly in battle.
I'm always surprised that in the recent and current Hollywoodization of so many stories ripped from the pages of 18th and 19th century novels and turned into costume dramas, that there haven't been more biopics of some of the amazing women who lived during that era. Emma Hamilton's story hasn't been told since Olivier and Leigh steamed up the silver screen in That Hamilton Woman in 1941, and the studio highly truncated and sanitized it. Mary Robinson's life also took enough dramatic twists and turns to qualify her for celluloid as well, but it hasn't happened yet.
However ... Keira Knightly heads the cast in a film being made about Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire; and there was the recent Miss Austen Regrets and Becoming Jane. Female filmlovers flock to these kind of movies. With all the commercial success that these movies achieve, do you wonder why more real-life stories from the Georgian and Regency eras haven't made it to film, or do you think the tide is turning?

06 February 2008

At the Court of the Mad King

Hello, all! This post may be rather less organized than intended, since I’m all in a flurry packing to begin my author tour extravaganza. I leave for Boston in, er, an hour, to read from my new book, “The Seduction of the Crimson Rose”, and from there on to various other cities (if anyone’s in Boston, I’ll be at the Harvard Coop tonight at 7:00!). Flurry and disorganization, however, are entirely appropriate for what I intended to write about today: the madnesses of King George.

The book on which I am currently working (still untitled), takes place in 1804 at the court of George III, where my heroine is a maid of honor to Queen Charlotte. Has anyone else ever noticed that historical fiction seems to make a leap from THE madness of King George in 1788 (the one popularized in film) to the Regency? And yet, there is a twenty-three year stretch between that first madness and the Regency, twenty-three years where court life went on much as usual. Twenty-three years in which the King went mad again… and again, and, even more miraculously, recovered and continued to rule.

The King suffered relapses in 1801 and 1804. On both occasions, the same symptoms reappeared. The King suffered from what his intimates referred to as “hurry,” a tendency to speak quickly and unceasingly, until the royal voice grew hoarse. He became coarse in his speech and vulgar in his attentions to women. Princess Caroline (no slouch in the vulgarity department herself) later claimed that the King had chased her around the room with lascivious intent, and there is also some question, reading between the lines of letters, as to whether he made sexual advances towards his own daughter and staunchest supporter, the Princess Sophia.

In his madnesses, the King was simultaneously a pathetic and a grotesque figure. The treatments inflicted on him, while considered the norm in the “mad-doctoring” profession at the time, sound horrifying to modern ears. The Willis brothers, immortalized in “The Madness of King George”, applied hot vinegar to his feet, blisters to various parts of his body, dosing him with preparations of quinine, musk, digitalis, camphor, and emetics of tartarized antimony so strong that the King prayed to be allowed to die. Sometimes the sores left by the blistering treatment supporated and festered, leaving the King in indescribable agony. By the illness of 1804, the King flat out refused to have anything to do with the Willises. Two of his younger sons, the Dukes of Kent and Cumberland, barred the doors to the Willises and called instead for Dr. Simmons of St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics. Simmons’, methods, however, were much the same as those of the Willis brothers, including liberal use of the straight waistcoat. If the King hadn’t been mad before, it’s a wonder the pain of his treatment didn’t drive him mad. (That picture, by the way, is of Dr. Simmons).

Astoundingly, the treatments worked—or, at least, the King recovered—in 1788, 1801, and 1804. In 1801, the King credited his recovery to a pillow of hops suggested by Addington. On such small things did the fate of the nation rest. It becomes even more incredible and frightening when you consider that England was at war with France and the King’s signature required to ratify vital treaties and legislation. Although the Prince of Wales behaved rather badly throughout the whole affair, often working more to exacerbate his father’s illness than cure it, there was some justification to his complaint that it was absurd to have the country ruled from a straightjacket.

I did mean to also write about court life in general—aside from George’s mad moments. The later Georgian court represents an interesting transitional period where power was shifting towards Parliament and the traditional avenues of influence (personal service to the King and Queen) no longer yielded the fruits they once had. Fanny Burney, for example, could not even use her personal position with the Queen to successfully advance her brother’s career. During that period, maids of honor (like my heroine) went from living in the royal residences with the monarchs as an integral part of court life to “living out,” and just coming in when needed to stand behind the Queen on public occasions.

I was most struck by the bizarre mix of formality and informality one sees—the royal princesses had all sorts of gushing, affectionate nicknames for their attendants; the Queen cried on Burney’s shoulder; the King liked popping in on friends in Kew and Windsor unannounced. But, at the same time, the Queen refused to allow a pregnant attendant to sit in contravention of etiquette and, when the King popped in on his friends, they had to stand with their backs against the wall lest they accidentally turn their backs on the King.

Has anyone else looked into the court of George III? I’d be interested to hear your takes on court life, particularly during that stretch between his first and last madness. My own sense is that Burney’s journals, especially that one famous passage on court etiquette, tend to get over-emphasized, but I’d love to hear other opinions on the matter!

05 February 2008

ALL FOR LOVE & what Mary Robinson did for it

Overnight she became a star. Over many nights she became a legend.

The amorous adventures of a celebrated English courtesan come to life in a novel rich with the pageantry of history—and with the notorious desires of the men and women who helped to define it.

Today marks the release of my fourth historical fiction title, ALL FOR LOVE: The Scandalous Life and Times of Royal Mistress Mary Robinson.

Narrated in Mary’s voice, the novel charts the steep rise and descent of one of the great celebrities of the 18th century, and yet Mary Robinson is little known to Americans. Yet she hobnobbed with so many luminaries of the Georgian era, which are “household names” to us: Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, David Garrick, Thomas Gainsborough, Charles James Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and of course, her first lover, the teenage Prince of Wales, later George IV. All of these august personages figure as characters in ALL FOR LOVE.

Mary’s writings, so well known in her time, are scarcely taught in our high schools and universities, although I was delighted to meet a University of Pennsylvania English professor who not only teaches Mary’s work but has written about it himself from the academic’s perspective.

At only fifteen, Mary Robinson was married off to an unfaithful wastrel. During the next seven years, her spellbinding talent, beauty, and drive would lead her from the denigration of debtors’ prison to the London stages, where a star was born. With the heart of a poet and face of an angel she was sold as society’s darling. Though dubbed “the priestess of taste” for her dashing style, her unabashed exploits made her the queen of scandal, envied by women worldwide, and desired by every man within reach.

The future George IV

From Mary Robinson’s shocking affair with the Prince of Wales and the fortuitous liaisons that titillated the country, to heartbreaking betrayals and a restless pursuit of true romance, this breathtaking novel paints a vivid portrait of a woman who changed history by doing as she pleased—for money, for fame, for pleasure, and above all, for love.

John Dryden (1631-1700)

The title of my novel is taken from the 1677 drama about Antony and Cleopatra by John Dryden, the full title of which is ALL FOR LOVE—OR THE WORLD WELL LOST. Not only did Mary Robinson perform in that play during her career as the brightest light on the London stage in the 1770s, but the full title has such beautiful resonance to the story of her life. Although Mary played many of Shakespeare's heroines, numerous other classical roles and several leading parts written by contemporary playwrights, she was best known for the role in which she attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales--Perdita, the lost princess disguised as a shepherdess in Twelfth Night, or more accurately, in Garrick's reworking of the play, retitled Florizel and Perdita. "Perdita" literally means lost girl, which also describes Mary in many ways. Signing himself "Florizel," the prince wrote copious love letters to his Perdita.

Born between 1756 and 1758 (I settled on 1757) Mary’s early childhood was spent in an affluent merchant’s home in Bristol. But her father, Nicholas Darby, an adventurer as well as a dreadful businessman, turned out to be an adulterer as well, and abandoned his wife and their three children (one of Mary’s brothers died of smallpox a few years later) He returned from a failed venture in the North American fur trade, and took up residence in London with his mistress, expecting his wife Hester to fend for herself and her children. But when Hester, needing an income, opened a school, her estranged husband was scandalized. How dare she bring shame upon his name by working?!

Mary was one of the rare girls to have some formal schooling during the era. She attended the academy run by the More sisters in Bristol, and Hannah More, in her pre-evangelical years was one of Mary’s tutors. Mary displayed an early aptitude for acting and eventually won an audition for David Garrick, artistic director of the Drury Lane theatre.

David Garrick (1717-79)

But her theatrical debut was postponed by two events: a bout of smallpox, and her mother’s insistence that she marry well instead of pinning her hopes on a stage career. What happened next set the wheels in motion for the rest of her life, and I won’t give away all the dips and turns on its wild ride. Suffice it to say that every time Mary hit rock bottom, she courageously managed to reinvent herself and in each profession she tried, from acting to courtesanry, to writing (poetry, bestselling novels, plays, operas, and essays) to radical feminism. Off the bat, I can’t think of any women of our era who have managed to attain a zenith in so many careers, all while raising her only child, Maria Elizabeth, as a devoted single mother.

Mary died of illness in 1800 at the age of forty-three, having accomplished an extraordinary number of things, including a vast body of writing, during her short life. Sure, she had flaws—she was, after all, a real person. But she also impresses the heck out of me, I must admit. And I can’t help thinking what else she might have been able to achieve, had she spent more time on earth.

Had you ever heard of Mary Robinson before?

On Thursday I’ll talk about the challenges I faced during my research and writing.

04 February 2008

In Praise of Silk

Recently I've turned into a luxury junkie. I have a couple of very nice Omega watches, some trendy Italian gold bracelets (Fope is my favorite jewelry designer, if you must know), and more Hermes scarves than any one woman ought to own.

I confess I feel a bit of kinship with some of our Regency heroines -- the indolent spendthrifts in particular. During a recent thunderstorm and blackout here in San Francisco, a friend of mine described cooking in her garage on a grill and lighting the house with flashlights during the 29 hour blackout. My astonished comment was, "Why didn't you move into a hotel for the night?" Yes, you can call me Princess. I'll even answer to Prin.

Back to the scarf thing. Hermes scarves have become something of an obsession, truth be told. My hardscrabble immigrant grandparents would turn cartwheels in their graves if they knew I'm on a first name basis with the Sales Associates in a store that sells handbags that cost between six and twenty thousand dollars. Of course the scarves are a bit more affordable, though still pricey considering they weigh a couple of ounces. But there is something so utterly luxurious about draping fine silk around your neck. Or cashmere. Or a fine linen/silk blend.

Naturally this collection is something I have to justify to myself, given my hardworking roots. But how?

I haven't resolved that question yet, but it did lead me to thinking about the typical Regency heroine. Here is a woman who benefits from an all-too-cruel social hierarchy, who lives in luxury while those who serve her are often reduced to illness and injury while in her service. How did the average Regency heroine justify this?

It seems to be a topic left out of most romance novels, even in passing. Sure, there are one or two heroines who get involved in a minor subplot saving orphans or climbing boys, but we rarely see women who wonder about the social discrepancy of their times. Where are the true reformers of fiction?

It could be that I'm making too much of this and it's simply a factor of the social constructs of the time. People didn't question the sovereign right of kings (or rather, the few who did question it aren't painted in a pretty light historically). Given the sense of entitlement permeating the aristocracy, perhaps there were no niggling doubts that needed justified or glossed over. After all, even "simple courtesies" often didn't exist for those a rung lower on the social scales. I remember scenes where the heroine's maid was left to walk in the rain, as though those of inferior birth and breeding didn't need to be offered the consideration of an umbrella.

I'd love to hear thoughts on this from other authors and readers. Do you ever get the sense that we're missing an opportunity to add some depth to our heroines by making them more insightful about social inequities? Or are there books out there that have covered this ground? Or would it simply destroy the magic of a good romance to have a moralizing heroine?

P.S. -- I refuse to disclose the extent of my Hermes scarf collection on the grounds that it may incriminate me. However, if you're in San Francisco for the RWA conference in July, I promise to be wearing a scarf anytime you see me.

01 February 2008

Sickday Post,: Nervously, and in Praise of My Near and Dear

I've got a rotten cold today. I'm sneezing. Coughing. Blowing. Wiping. Tossing. Missing the wastebasket. Writing under the covers with my laptop on my knees. Trying not to worry too hard about the revision requests my editor is going to make and whether she even likes the manuscript I recently sent her. Trying to distract myself by remembering interesting conversations I've had over the years about what I think I'm doing writing historical romance anyhow.

I wasn't a huge romance reader before I started writing them. Instead I came to this business fresh from a fascinating experience of writing two erotic novels as Molly Weatherfield (still going strong after a decade and multiple reprintings), and from a lifetime of reading mostly literary fiction. Also (perhaps more to the point) from a lifetime of being a woman in this culture, of growing up in the golden age of Technicolor and cherishing a lifelong passion for historical costume movies and romantic comedies (including a passion for Shakespeare's gutsy girls in tights, like Viola in Twelfth Night).

Well, it wasn't the first eccentric resume I'd ever brought to a job. But in retrospect it seems to me I showed remarkable chutzpah during the time I was trying to get published in romance. My near and dear, though enthusiastic and appreciative of my writing, were pretty much convinced I'd gone bonkers. But in a nice way. A nice, talky, interesting, substantive way.

(In fact, one of those conversations may have been documented on audio, when my friend Susie Bright interviewed Molly Weatherfield for In Bed With Susie Bright, her series on Audible.com. It's not the best interview I ever gave and who knows how it was edited. But in the original conversation, at least, I tried to convince a skeptical Susie that there might be a place in romance fiction for me.)

And of course I talked nonstop about what I was doing with my husband (who's always been my most astute reader and who's become my research partner). But then I've always talked with just about anybody I could grab, both before and after I got published. (That's me over on the right, continuing to spritz at last year's RWA National Conference, after Janet Mullany and my workshop on Writing the Hot Historical -- which we'll be giving again this year -- yay!)

Today I'm particularly remembering a conversation with my sister. Not usually a romance reader, she'd nonetheless read my first two romance novels with pleasure. "But let me get this straight, Pam," she continued, nailing me with her bright-eyed gaze, "there's a hero and a heroine. And they meet up early in the novel and it takes the rest of the novel for them to get together. And that's... it?"

Which didn't mean, I hasten to add, that she hadn't enjoyed the plotting and the cliff-hangers and the sex and all that good stuff in my books. She had. But she'd also quickly focused in on what the business calls "foregrounding the romance."

"That's it," I said.

Or perhaps not -- at least after I thought about it some more, in the secret part of me that persists in wondering just how many romance conventions you can tweak and still have a romance.

Because in this current manuscript (the one that my editor might be frowning over at this moment), it's not so clear from the opening chapters who the hero is. Which makes me think maybe my unconscious had remembered that little conversation with my sister and created that little jog in the narrative for her.

Will it fly in romance? I'm still not sure, even if My Son the Victorianist told me reassuringly that "Lukacs said that every novel should keep you guessing about who its protagonists are in the beginning."

But perhaps you've already noticed that I'm very very proud of my big smart boy Jesse, who sometimes understands what I'm doing in my books better than I do, and who, in his own professional life, has compiled a terrific use of 19th century British literary and historical resources that you should check out.

Jesse explained that Georg Lukacs, an early twentieth century literary and social theorist, says that anyone could be the hero or heroine of a novel, because a novelistic narrative takes place in a recognizable world of everyday events. An in that world of events everyone has a story and none of these modern stories are necessarily the easy, obvious instances of folk and fairy tale.

While in the folk tradition, on the other hand, there's no problem recognizing the hero or heroine in beginnings like "once there was king, who had a very beautiful daughter." Or, "there was a miller with three sons. The oldest inherited the mill, the second got the land, but when it came to the youngest, all that was left was a handful of beans and a ragged cloak..."

Any yet don't romance novels draw upon both traditions? Don't the best of them weave the everyday and the hyperbolic, the quotidian and the fantastic? Is it perhaps because the story of finding someone to build a life with is so ordinary and yet so important and miraculous and magical, that we use the old folk forms to tell ourselves our love stories, even as romance writers like myself might want to test the strength of those forms against the hard stuff of modern novelistic convention?

But Jesse didn't tell me all of that. Actually, the bit about her own love and courtship story being the one story that every woman carries around inside her comes from none other than my mother. She's a huge reader -- mostly midlist literary fiction, with liberal chasers of Anne Perry, Amanda Quick, and me -- and I'll always be grateful to her for that true and penetrating observation.

And now I think I'll just slip (ah-choo!) further down under the covers...

While as for questions --

I guess the big one (for readers and for writers) is -- what mix of the everyday and the fantastical do you like in your romance fiction?

For writers, do you get useful, provocative help and support from friends and family outside of the romance reading and writing community? (And don't you just hate waiting around for that revision letter?)

And (for everybody, please) what do you take for a rotten, miserable cold and sore throat?

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