History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

24 March 2010

Welcome, Cara Elliott!

Please join me in giving a warm Hoyden welcome to historical romance novelist extraordinaire Cara Elliott! Her books have been called "deeply, deliciously, divinely romantic" and "magnificently compelling". Some of you may have encountered Cara during her previous incarnation as Andrea Pickens, her nom de plume for her award winning "Spy" series, featuring a trio of swashbuckling heroines more interested in ripostes than ratafia. I have the privilege of knowing Cara/Andrea in yet another role: as co-creator of Reading the Historical Romance, a seminar on the Regency romance that we're currently teaching together at Yale. Despite juggling multiple personae, book deadlines, and, yes, a pile of papers to be graded, Cara has taken time out from her hectic schedule to speak to us today about the pioneering female scientists of the Regency-- the focus of her new series, the Circle of Sin.

I tend to write offbeat, unconventional heroines. I’m not quite sure why I’m attracted to quirky characters—maybe because I tended to be a tomboy as a child and was often chided to “act more like a normal young lady!” (To her credit, my mother was not one of those voices. She always encouraged my enthusiasms—whether they involved cutting out cardboard swords and crowns, or making bow and arrows— for which I am profoundly grateful.) In any case, none of my heroines are demure, dainty demoiselles swathed in layers of satin and silk. They are more the sort of women who don’t mind rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty, both physically and metaphorically.

I’ve been scolded in the past for not creating “real” Regency ladies, but I beg to disagree—albeit politely. For the more I research the Regency era, the more I discover what fascinating and adventurous women lived during the era. Poets, scientists, artists, writers, musicians—there were many individuals who had the courage to defy the strictures of Society and risk censure or ridicule in order to explore their passions.

As my new “Circle of Sin” trilogy revolves around a small group of lady scientists, it’s no wonder that I find the women who dared to step out of the ballroom and into the natural world—as well as the intellectual world—such intriguing figures. Here are a few of the individuals who caught my fancy.

Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, was Lord Byron’s daughter, though never knew her father as her parents separated soon after her birth. As a child she suffered through a difficult childhood, as her mother was a manipulative woman who used physical pain and guilt to try to control those around her. Ada exhibited a special talent for mathematics and was fortunate enough to meet Mary Somerville, the leading female scientist of the times, who encouraged her to study seriously. (Somerville College at Oxford is named after her.)

After her marriage, Ada helped support Charles Babbage, the inventor of the Difference Engine and Analytical Engine, precursors of the modern computer. They worked together on mathematical problems, and Babbage called her “the Enchantress of Numbers.” Indeed, Ada’s notes on calculating sequences of Bernoulli numbers on the machine is credited with being the first computer program. Today, the U. S. Department of Defense has named one of its programs ADA in her honor. Unfortunately, she became addicted to opium and alcohol, then, on kicking those habits, she turned to gambling on horses. Like her father she died young, succumbing to uterine cancer at age 36.

Anna Atkins, whose career—like that of the Countess of Lovelace—overlapped into the Victorian era, is another “Original.” The daughter of a noted scientist, she received “an unusually scientific education for a woman of her times” and developed a special interest in the natural world. An accomplished artist as well as a scholar, she did a series of detailed engraving of shells for some of her father’s works.

Anna then went on to study the nascent art of photography with William Henry Fox Talbot, a family friend and innovator of the new artform. Her cyanotype photogram studies of seaweed are recognized as some of the most artistic scientific images ever created. The specimens were dried in a press than exposed in the sun onto treated paper which was then stabilized in a chemical fixer. The results are amazingly graphic, abstract images of striking beauty.

Mary Anning began digging up fossils from the sea cliffs around her home in Lyme Regis at age twelve to help support her family. Collecting had become popular among wealthy tourists, and Anna showed an uncanny knack for finding spectacular specimens. Her interest soon became intellectual as well as financial. Fascinated by the extraordinary wealth of life forms preserved in the stones, she carefully preserved and catalogued her finds.

Mary’s shop became known throughout the scientific world, drawing such notable visitors as the geologist George William Featherstonhaugh and King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony. As she gained confidence in her knowledge, she began writing articles for scientific journals, and despite her lack of formal training, she is considered one of the pioneers in paleontology. (Among other things, Mary is credited with discovering an ichthyosaurus and a pterodactyl.) The Royal Geological Society eventually recognized her accomplishments by making her an honorary Fellow.

Caroline Herschel was a tiny women who stood only four foot, three inches tall, but she looms large in the history of astronomy. Born in Germany, she was brought to Bath by her brother, William Herschel, who had been appointed organist of the Octagon Chapel in Bath and needed someone to help him keep house.

He soon gave up music in favor of building high-power telescopes, and Caroline (who had already won recognition as an accomplished singer) started to help. In 1782, William was appointed King’s Astronomer to George III. They moved to the Observatory House near Slough, and Caroline soon learned to “sweep” the skies with the powerful lenses, studying the stars and helping to record the complex calculations of their observations.

William is credited with discovering the planet Uranus (which he named the Georgium Sidus—the star of George—in honor of the English King) but Caroline earned her own place in the scientific firmament by discovering no less than eight major comets and meticulously cataloguing countless stars. In 1828, Caroline was awarded a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society for her work. And in 1835 she and Mary Somerville were the first women ever elected to an honorary membership in the Society.

I could go on and on, for there are countless other compelling women. But now it’s your turn. Do you have a favorite “Original” female from Regency England?


Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Very interesting, Cara! I, too, believe that there were great women accomplishing remarkable things in every era. Some, like your ladies, we hear about, some are lost to us.

I thought it very sad that Ada Byron succumbed to addiction, both of substances and gambling. What a waste of a fine mind!

6:58 AM  
Blogger cara elliott said...

So true, Diane. The social pressures on her must have been enormous, not to speak of the psychological demons of her family life. No telling what she might have accomplished with more emotional support.

7:11 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm told that the great 19th century physicist James Clerk Maxwell said the person who best understood his work was his friend the brilliant polymath George Eliot (yes, of Middlemarch).

And I'm loving To Sin With a Scoundrel ;-)

8:17 AM  
Blogger cara elliott said...

Very interesting about George Eliot, Pam! So many of these women were so amazingly gifted.

And thanks so much for the nice words on Scoundrel!

8:31 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

You write the kind of heroines I love reading! The new series sounds simply amazing, and I think it's wonderful for books to take us outside Almack's and show more of what was REALLY happening during the late Georgian era.

9:06 AM  
Blogger cara elliott said...

Thanks, Kalen! Yes, I, too, love waltzing out of Almack's (though I enjoy that aspect of the Regency as well. the era was so much more than fancy ballrooms and morning calls.)

I'm really looking forward to your new GCP "books!

9:13 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Welcome, Cara, and what a wonderful post! I adore women (both fictional and actual) who color outside the lines, and these women are undeniably fascinating! They intrigue me all the more because I've always been a lousy science student!

10:22 AM  
Blogger cara elliott said...

Oh, me too! I'm in awe of people who can grasp science and math. Me? I'm hopeless. Give me a crayon and I'm happy. (Especially coloring outside the lines, LOL)

10:33 AM  
Anonymous RfP said...

I love the theme.

You didn't mention it, but I assume this is your post for Ada Lovelace Day. (March 24th is a day to blog in honor of Lovelace and other women in science and technology.)

6:15 PM  
Anonymous rp said...

& Tracey Chevalier's newest book, _Remarkable Creatures_, gives an interesting, if fictional glimpse into Mary Anning's world, and that of Elizabeth Philpot, whose fossilized fish can be found in the British Museum.

I have a gap in my knowledge of remarkable women, unfortunately--I'm stuck in the 17th century with remarkable women like Queen Christina of Sweden, or Madeleine de Scudéry--the novelist who published her first books under her brother's name, Barbara Strozzi (composer/singer), Aphra Behn, Elisabeth Sophie Chéron--painter, poet, musician ... and this only a smattering of possible names.

Not easy, in any of these periods, to be so far outside the realm of expected norms for feminine behavior (though Queen Christina was able to do pretty much as she pleased, perhaps due to her rank & then her fame due to her prominent conversion to Catholicism. But she caused consternation by her "mannish" dress and manners, nonetheless).

6:31 PM  
Blogger cara elliott said...

rp, all those women sound fascinating—you're right in that every era had so many unsung heroines. I hope we'll keep hearing a lot more about them.

6:54 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Welcome, Cara! Thanks for a wonderful blog. Like you and Kalen, I love to read and write about offbeat, unconventional heroines. I think there are plenty of historical examples to support such characters, whether it's scientific explorers such as those in your post or social reformer/radicals such as Mary Wollestonecrat, Silver Fork novelists like Marguerite Blessington, or political wielders-of-influence such as Lady Holland who left her husband to elope with a lover, bore an illegitimate child, married her lover, and went on to preside over the political influential Holland House circle.

Btw, have you seen or read Tom Stoppard's Arcadia? Ada Byron was the inspiration for Thomasina.

10:58 PM  
Blogger Kim in Baltimore said...

Thank you, Cara, for writing off beat Regency heroines. Frankly, I think it is quite humorous that Americans (including myself) read about the nobility yet we enjoy our freedom from it! But that’s what makes it fun to depart from a true Regency heroine among the Upper 10000 who would only care about the color of her bonnet! I want to read about a heroine’s fun adventure outside of the shops in a historical time.

Speaking of unusual heroines, I did not realize March 24 was Ada Lovelace Day! I have admired her since I was a brand new 2nd Lieutenant during computer training at Keesler AFB – we learned the new DOD interoperable program named ADA in honor of the Lady Lovelace!

During that same computer training, we learned about another offbeat heroine for her time, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, (December 9, 1906 – January 1, 1992). Admiral Hopper was one of the first programmers. She also popularized the term “debuggin” removing an actual moth from the computer (it was that simple). She rose through the ranks as a reserve officer, being called onto active duty because of her technical expertise at a time when most women were still at home. She was once quoted, “A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are for. Sail out to sea and do new things."

So Cara, please give us more heroines who do new things!

3:54 AM  
Blogger cara elliott said...

Tracy, I think one of us (Leslie, are you listening!) has to do a romp through the smart ladies of history! What a book that would be!

4:54 AM  
Blogger cara elliott said...

Kim, thank so much for sharing your "unconventional" heroine. I love the "de-bugging" comment, as well as her wonderful quote. Sailing into the unknown is both frightening and exhilarating, as we see from all these amazing women from history. What an inspiration they are.

4:57 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That would be a fabulous book! Leslie, you should propose a book about the Smart Ladies of History to your editor. You could make it the Smart Ladies & their Lovers to make it sexy...

10:13 AM  
Blogger cara elliott said...

Oh,excellent idea, Tracy!

10:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not sure if anyone here is familar with Vicki Leon, but she has a wonderful series of books about "Uppity" women. One in medieval times, one in the renaissance, and one in the "New World" (which really covers all of the Americas and Australia). I own all three and they are chock full of really interesting women involved in non lady-like activities. She has more books than just the three "Uppity" ones, but here's the Amazon link if you're interested...


-Randi Thompson

12:18 PM  
Anonymous Tinky said...

The series sounds wonderful--and as RfP pointed out this is a GREAT post for Ada Lovelace Day!

1:08 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Great post Cara! Your book sounds fabulous! I was a tomboy also and still am to a certain degree! It seems like if something needs to be fixed here I am the lucky one to do it or it don't get done. I have done plumbing and a little of everything else! I guess I am not much of a lady like the ones in my books.

4:07 PM  
Blogger cara elliott said...

Thanks for the info, Randi. I haven't seen them, but they sound great!

And thanks Tinky, I hope you will give the books a try!

5:24 PM  
Blogger cara elliott said...

LOL Virginia! I know the feeling of rolling up my sleeves to get things done. And so do my heroines. My June book features an female archeologist who id very happy digging in the dirt!

5:27 PM  
Anonymous Kathrynn Dennis said...

Great post, Cara! I wish I could have known these women. I would love to have a drink with them and hear their stories!

7:20 PM  
Blogger cara elliott said...

Wouldn't that be wonderful, Kathrynn. They did not have easy lives, which makes their triumphs even more compelling.

8:24 PM  

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