History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

31 January 2011

A little personal history

My earliest memory is learning to read. I was three years old. One of my sisters was seven, and learning phonics in school. We were lying on the hardwood floor in the foyer of our drafty old house in western Pennsylvania, and she was reading Dr. Seuss books to me. I already knew the alphabet, but she explained all about how letters made sounds, and those sounds formed words. Eureka! A lightbulb went on over my head, just like in a Warner Brothers cartoon. I read my first book right there on the floor. I think it was Dr. Seuss' Hop on Pop. Another early favorite was The Little Engine that Could (I think I can, I think I can...).

I read everything I could get my hands on. There was no shortage of books in the house, but I'd read anything — cereal boxes, milk cartons, shampoo bottles. When I was eight, my older brother went to college, and he sent me a lot of books that were inappropriate for my age. I remember reading Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon when I was about 11, and a lot of horror. Looking back, I think my brother was sending the books home for storage, but he never told my parents I was reading them.

I constantly made up my own highly melodramatic stories. In my strict Catholic elementary school, I was often punished for daydreaming. I won't share the revenge fantasies I concocted during those long hours standing in the corner. If I ever decide to write horror, I'll need them for source material.

Do any of you have vivid memories of reading as a child? Favorite books from the past?

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28 January 2011

Families Made and Families Found -- Then and Now

It all comes around to Jane Eyre, perhaps -- or to those lovely posters that I've been seeing in the train stations, of the beautiful young actress Mia Wasikowska as Jane, in the forthcoming movie. Prompting me to take a smart and lovely book off my shelf: Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres, by Ruth Brandon.

Brandon writes eloquently about the embarrassments and discomforts of the governess life -- the loneliness of this particular state of upper servanthood, of being in the family but not of it, denied even the downstairs camaraderie and shared resentments of the servants' hall. The loneliness and the anger, expressed so passionately in Jane Eyre and lived by the real-life governesses, Mary Wollstonecraft, Anne Bronte, Claire Clairmont, and others.

All of which, of course, takes place in the context of family life among the upper classes of a society where status and much of wealth was based upon the transfer of land, title and inheritance to an eldest son. Where in 99% of the cases, women of the landed (and even the middle, classes could only achieve real status by marrying into the system) and who needed some training in the ladylike graceful arts and accomplishments to pull it off. Which is, of course, why they had governesses.

For men, meanwhile, inheritance mattered -- most particularly for older sons. At the upper reaches of society, legitimate claims to a title mattered. As in the earliest extant romances (from second-century Greece) paternity mattered.

But what if a landowning family had no legitimate heir? If the estate wasn't entailed (most horrifically to a Mr. Collins) such a family without an heir might take in an affable, attractive boy. And if he remained affable, attractive, might settle the estate upon him.

Jane Austen's brother, Edward Austen Knight (as he became), was evidently such a boy. This is silhouette of Jane Austen's father presenting his son to the Knight family. And we should thank heaven that he was such a boy, that the Knight family did adopt him, and that the estate he inherited included Chawton Cottage, where in 1809 he installed his widowed, financially hard-pressed mother and spinster sisters Jane and Cassandra, and where Jane unpacked the manuscripts she'd been carrying around for a decade, and got to the serious, sublime work of creating Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey.

Perhaps remaining affable and attractive was a simple matter for Edward Austen Knight. Certainly we have no knowledge to the contrary. Still, I can't help wondering what the pressures might have been upon a boy who'd been sent away at age twelve from a crowded if loving home (eight children to support on the Reverend Mr. Austen's small living!) to charm his way into an estate. There isn't any evidence to suggest any difficulties -- except, perhaps, the portrait his brilliantly perceptive (and far less affable) sister Jane drew of another such boy -- Frank Churchill in Emma.

Not only is Frank constrained to dance attendance upon the difficult, querulous aunt who holds his fate in her hands, but he's managed to further complicate his life by falling in love with a young woman of no property of her own -- one of the angriest governesses (or would-be governesses) in all of fiction, Jane Fairfax.

Bringing us back to the humiliations of living one's life preparing other ladies (perhaps far less smart or talented or even handsome than oneself) to enter the marriage mart. To be a governess was to be an unsuccessful (because unmarried) lady never quite at home in the house of a successful lady and her potentially successful daughters.

The darkness of a love between a too charming adopted boy and a furious and furiously accomplished orphaned girl, neither of them with secure assurances of an eventual home is, to my mind, one of Austen's great understated moments of social criticism, and one that leads me to muse upon the misshapings of family life under the dominance of property and inheritance. Not strictly or simply a romantic couple in Austen (their problems are solved too abruptly by a providential offstage death) Jane and Frank continue to haunt my imagination, to make me hope that they do find their way, somewhere beyond the covers of Emma.

While as for the complexities of family life that more often than not overflows strict biological boundaries, of governesses in homes not of their making, and all the secrets and lies of identity and inheritance. The more I think about it, the more contemporary these issues begin to seem. Think of blended families (on your street, among your relatives, perhaps in your own home). Think of working mothers and of their nannies whose own children are sometimes halfway around the world.

The idealized postwar mid-century "nuclear family" was doubtless the exception instead of the rule. And so, I'm thinking, perhaps the impetus for this post didn't entirely originate with Jane Eyre, but with the actress who will play her, and who also played another touching young woman, Mia Wasikowska as Joni in the Oscar-nominated The Kids are All Right.

Which movie has also been in my mind, perhaps because of my own sister Robin and her partner Barb's family (much like the one in the movie, although their daughter and son are still too young to meet their biological dad). Or because my son has recently fallen in love with a lovely women who's brought with her Sasha, a ready-made two and a half year old granddaughter for us.

And because I'm rather awed to realize (if only after the fact of writing it) how important the idea of a network of relationships that creates a family were for me when I wrote another complicated story of families finding themselves in The Edge of Impropriety, which will be reissued in mass paperback this May.

There's my new cover.

And HERE (indulge me, please, just this once) is Sasha's first representational drawing -- eyes, nose and mouth, in the lower right hand corner of the pic.

And let me know what some of your favorite new-style, old-style, blended or created families are in romance (or in the movies, too)

(and thanks again to romance blogger Tumperkin, for her lovely, insightful comments on EDGE)

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26 January 2011

Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton Love Token Found!

On Thursday, the auction house of Woolley and Wallis in Salisbury England will auction off a piece of romantic, nautical, and historic memorabilia (expected hammer price of up to £5,000 -- which sounds low to me).

It's a 3" gold locket decorated with pearls and containing locks of hair purportedly belonging both to Admiral Nelson and Emma Hamilton, his future lover, made shortly after Nelson's illustrious victory over Napoleon's fleet at the Nile on August 1, 1798.

Nelson's ship was severely destroyed during the battle and Nelson himself was injured during the fighting. He put into port in Naples where Sir William Hamilton was Britain's ambassador to the Court of the Two Sicilies. Hamilton's much younger, luscious wife Emma was a confidante of the queen. She had been corresponding with the admiral since 1793 when Nelson had come to Naples to request their military and financial aid: Napoleon had blockaded Toulouse and England was desperately in need of allies in the Mediterranean.

Emma and Nelson did not see each other from 1793 until late September 1798 when his flagship, the Vanguard, limped into the Bay of Naples, and she was rowed out to welcome him. When she saw that he had lost an arm and the sight in one eye she nearly fainted. The admiral was also suffering from a relapse of malaria; Emma nursed him back to health. It was then, during Nelson's long weeks of convalesence that the pair most likely fell in love, although Nelson, too, was married at the time. His wife, Fanny Nisbet, was back in London. She didn't understand him, Nelson insisted. Emma, however, was his soul mate. Their passion was powerful and mutual, but out of respect for Sir William, was not consummated for many months.

Yet if this locket contains Nelson's blond hair and Emma's auburn hair, it would suggest that the couple became intimate even sooner than 1799 when they most likely first became lovers. Its provenance is interesting: it came from a family in Australia to the English naval city of Portsmouth and eventually ended up at an auction house in Wiltshire.

In any case, it's one of history's mysteries.

According to the Daily Mail online, "Jonathan Edwards from Woolley and Wallis noted that it was "potentially a very important piece. We are sure as we can be that it is right and we've had experts look at it and they agree. There is an 'N' on it which means Nelson. We believe it was made in the year following the battle because after that Nelson used the name Bronte. [King Ferdinand of Naples awarded Nelson the Dukedom of Bronte (located on the island of Sicily) in 1799 and Nelson used the Bronte name formally, in addition to his own surname]

" 'Quite who it was made for and how it got to Australia we don't know. It has pearls in it, an anchor and an arrow. There is also gold thread and it really is a beautiful thing that is more likely to have been worn by a woman. Nelson's reputation really suffered because of his affair with Lady Hamilton, although it was restored in time. This really ought to go into a museum,' " Edwards added.

The story of Nelson and Emma's relationship is chronicled in my novel TOO GREAT A LADY: THE NOTORIOUS, GLORIOUS LIFE OF EMMA, LADY HAMILTON (written under the pen name Amanda Elyot). I drew their courtship from the facts and circumstances of their lives and allowed my imagination to embellish the gaps.

Have you ever seen a love token that spurred you to write a scene or even a novel? Have you ever incorporated an actual love token like this into one of your stories?

Update: Below is the text from BBC News. The locket was expected to fetch £5000. The hammer price was nearly nine times that at £44,000!

Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton locket sells for £44,000
A rare artifact linked to Admiral Lord Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton's famous love affair been auctioned for £44,000.

The late 18th Century gold locket pendant is thought to contain a lock of Nelson's hair on one side and Lady Hamilton's on its reverse.

It was bought by London jewelers Sandra Cronan on behalf of "an important collector."

It had been found in a cupboard by an Australian couple clearing a house they had inherited in Portsmouth.

A spokesperson for Salisbury auction house Woolley and Wallis said several keen phone bidders from around the world had pushed the price up.

Scandalised society
Auctioneer Jonathan Edwards described the locket as "beautifully made and very significant."

It is marked with a capital N, a naval anchor and the date of August 1798 - when Nelson achieved victory at the Battle of the Nile.

After the battle, Nelson stayed with the British Envoy in Naples, Sir William Hamilton and began a relationship with his wife Emma which scandalised society at the time.

Mr. Edwards added: "The early date and decoration suggests that it is not a memento mori but a presentation gift to an admirer or associate whilst they were both in Naples and before their return to England together in 1800.

"If such, it is a unique relic of an enduring love affair."

So, my next question, dear readers is: who do you think bought it? I have my guess! Post your response below.

24 January 2011

A Spy in the Family

I found out some exciting news just this week. My lovely Uncle David, a charming and funny man, who passed away some twenty years ago, was a member of MI5 during World War II and his papers were released for public viewing at the UK Archives (although not online) a few years ago. I'd grown up hearing about how Uncle David did intelligence work--or something--during the war, but it wasn't a big deal in the family; probably partly because of English reticence about the war but also because he knew the information would be classified for sixty years. And a good spymaster knows how to keep a secret!

He was stationed on Gibraltar, that British-owned rock hanging off the edge of Spain. Spain was officially neutral, but Franco's regime was sympathetic to Nazi Germany. Of great strategic importance as a gateway to the Mediterranean, Gibraltar was coveted by the Axis powers and Spanish intelligence worked closely with the Nazis. The whole place was a minefield of intelligence, counterintelligence, and sabotage.

As head of Security Intelligence Department of Gibraltar's Defense Security Office, David Scherr's job was to identify Spanish agents and turn them to double agents, the "double cross" technique that had worked effectively in Britain. Although many Spanish citizens were fanatically anti-British, others, who had fought against Franco were sympathetic to the Allied cause. In less than a year, sabotage acts against Gibraltar's airfield and naval base ceased, and 43 attacks were prevented.

My uncle gave this entertaining account of the recruitment of one of his agents, the Queen of Hearts, and I believe this is his cartoon also (he was a great cartoonist and humorist; his letters to us were always a joy):
Just as the interview I was having with another member of the public was drawing inconclusively to an end, I was called into the next room to cope with a most extraordinary visitor. This was a woman in her 30s whose dress, mannerisms, speech and general appearance made her a rather seedy but not unattractive imitation of the seductive female spy of the thrillerette type.

She sat down in front of the office desk, crossed her legs, adjusting the hem of her dress to reveal them to the best advantage, slowly lit a cigarette, inhaling and breathing out the smoke in the approved furtive, reticent fashion, looking down her long and aquiline nose at the same time, and then smiled across at her interrogator-to-be and said, in cosmopolitan English, "I am the Queen of Hearts. Who are you?"
This slinky femme fatale was married to the harbour master in one of the small ports of the Bay of Gibraltar and provided a great deal of information on a series of underwater attacks on Allied shipping off Gibraltar. These daring attacks, using Italian frogmen as human torpedoes, inspired Ian Fleming to include such attacks in his James Bond novels. More here.

I'm always thrilled to find some interesting family history and it's nice to see my uncle's work acknowledged, although he was awarded an MBE in 1945.

Have you made any recent interesting historical discoveries? About your family or as part of writing research?

22 January 2011

The Poe Toaster: Never More?

On January 19th, every year since 1949, a masked fan of Edgar Allan Poe has left three red roses and half a bottle of cognac on the literary great's grave. I'm a big Poe fan and remember reading The Raven and The Cask of Amontillado when I was in grade school truly being scared---but loving every minute of it.

This year, I am sad to report, Poe's toaster failed to appear.

According to tradition (and Wikipedia), the Poe toaster appeared in the early hours of the morning of January 19, a black-clad figure with a silver-tipped cane, presumed to be male. He would enter the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground in Baltimore. At the site of Poe's original grave, which is marked with a commemorative stone, he would raise a cognac toast and place three red roses on the grave marker in a special configuration, along with the unfinished bottle of Martell cognac. The roses were believed to represent Poe, his wife Virginia, and his mother-in-law Maria Clemm, all three of whom were originally interred at the site. The significance of the cognac is uncertain, as it does not feature in Poe’s works (as would, for example, amontillado). However, a note left at the 2004 visitation implied that the cognac represented a tradition of the Toaster's family, rather than Poe's. Several of the cognac bottles are kept at the Baltimore Poe House and Museum.

The Toaster wore a black coat and hat, and obscured his or her face with a scarf or hood. A group of reporters and Poe enthusiasts of varying size observed the event each year. A photograph, reputedly of the Toaster, was published by Life Magazine in 1990.

In 2010 the Poe Toaster failed to appear. Curator Jeff Jerome, who had witnessed every visitation from 1976 on, had no explanation, but did speculate that if the Toaster intended to end the tradition, the 2009 bicentennial would mark a logical ending point.

The 2011 anniversary saw only the appearance of four impostors (immediately dubbed "faux Toasters"), identified as such because all four walked in clear sight of waiting observers (contrary to the real Toaster's secretive nature). None gave the secret signal that only Jerome knows – a gesture the Toaster predictably made each year at the grave – and none arranged the roses in the unique pattern established by the Toaster.

Jerome (who has denied rumors that he himself was the Toaster) said that he will keep watch for one more year, and if there is no genuine appearance in 2012 he will consider the tradition ended.

I hope the Poe toaster hasn't met with hard times. I hope someone carries on, not as a faux toaster, but someone who respects and loves Poe's work as much as so many of us do. If you are out there, real Toaster, please go next year.

Are there other graveside traditions readers/writers know about to commemorate the birthdays of long dead authors?

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20 January 2011

Guest Post: Monica Burns

Before I even attempt to discuss history, I’d like to thank Diane and the Hoydens for hosting me here today. I confess intense intimidation when it comes to these knowledgeable women. Seriously, I know next to nothing about history. I really don’t. I’m a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to history and what I know. I just seem to have this knack for picking up the flavor of a location or time period and making it sound like I know the history.

Although my knowledge is fairly limited, I’ve a passion for history just like the Hoydens, and it’s wonderful to visit a blog where other history lovers reside. One of the things I love the most about history is the adventure of it all. By adventure, I mean flushing out new information when writing a book. Almost inevitably when I’m working on a book, I’ll write a line that has me thinking, hmm, better check this out so I don’t wind up with an anachronism in the story. Immediately, I’m off on a new adventure as I search for that tiny little bit of minutia that makes a difference in my story. Or at least it does for me.

I’ve found it’s the tiny pieces of historical data a writer adds in here and there that makes for a more flavorful story. It’s sort of like throwing in a pinch of cayenne or garlic to give the book atmosphere. So let’s talk a little plumbing, and not the female or male kind, but the household variety. My interest in plumbing began with my first time travel (unpublished and buried in my files somewhere). Naturally since my heroine went back in time, the past had few of the modern conveniences we enjoy today. Although I only included a couple of lines in the book about plumbing, I searched for as much legitimate info I could find to make those sentences sound as authentic as possible.

Plumbing has been around for several thousand years in number of forms. Not necessarily as sophisticated or convenient as ours, but it’s been there. One of the earliest civilizations that had a drainage system was the Minoans. Archaeologists have found evidence that they built plumbing in their buildings. As an avid camper, and with great-grandparents who didn’t have plumbing, I can assure you that having an outhouse “indoors” is infinitely preferable.

The Minoan knowledge and concept of drainage systems was lost at the time of the society’s collapse, but the ancient Romans and their incredible engineering feats gave us the foundation of our current plumbing and drainage systems. It’s amazing how much the Roman civilization has contributed the modern Western world from political systems to sewer systems…umm, why do I have this odd feeling those two were meant for each other even back then. *grin*

One of the truly amazing feats the ancient Romans did was the construction of the massive aqueduct system that transported water to the city from as far away as fifty-seven miles. Pretty amazing given we’re talking physical labor versus today’s machines doing the more labor intensive work. Granted these projects took years to complete, but then look how long it takes us to build an interstate highway WITH machines to help us.

The aqueducts provided water for all the ancient Romans needs. The Romans are renowned for their bathhouses and public latrines where the aqueduct water was used for hot water bathing, steam rooms (think sauna), and cold baths as well as public and private uses. For private homes, unless one was excessively wealthy, the toilet facilities were more than likely a cess pit (that indoors outhouse I mentioned above). Those in the upper echelon of the wealthy might actually have a bathroom with flowing water to remove waste. It wouldn’t be like modern day bathrooms, but more like a flowing stream of water that washed away human waste.The more prestigious Roman bathhouses had marble latrines for their patrons. Not only did the waste disposal system in the bathhouse involve running water for waste removal, I’ve read where some of these latrines had a trough of running water at the foot of each toilet seat with sponges resting in the water people to use after they’d finished their business. Essentially the sponges were the forerunners of today’s toilet paper. A factoid (whether true or not) makes me shudder.

Coming forward a few years, we find that the first patented toilet was by Alexander Cummings in 1775. He developed the “S trap,” which is still in use today. It’s that curved section of the pipe under the toilet (sinks have “S traps” too). The trap consists of a sliding valve that allows for disposal of the waste while keeping fresh water in the toilet bowl. The sliding valve traps sewage smells in the pipe and keeps them from permeating the room. Piping materials have changed, but it’s a pretty amazing invention, especially since it’s still in use today.

Modern conveniences have come a long way in more than two-hundred and thirty years, for which I’m extremely grateful. My great-grandparents farm didn’t have modern plumbing. I remember visiting and trying to avoid drinking anything the whole time I was there. I was willing to do just about anything to avoid using the wooden shack sitting over the cess pit in the far reaches of the backyard. *shudder* The only running water in the house was a pump at the sink that was connected to a water well. Truly rustic and not EVEN romantic. I can honestly say that I’m thrilled with the way I can turn the handle on my sink faucet and clean water comes out.

It’s a convenience that’s sadly in jeopardy. The US’s current wastewater and storm drainage systems are in a major state of crisis. Sewers haven’t been replaced or updated in years. Some systems predate the civil war. In many cities across the eastern seaboard, water mains have been in use for more than a hundred years. Here in Richmond (Virginia), our sewer pipes have been in use since the Civil War. It’s not unusual for I-95 or other city street traffic to be slowed, diverted or stopped by a large sink hole in the road as the result of a broken water main.

I find it interesting to consider whether or not history is repeating itself in terms of our most important infrastructures and their viability. Without a strong wastewater infrastructure (along with roads and clean water processes) there is a serious threat to our environment, health and overall economy. Perhaps one day we’ll be the Romans revered for our ingenuity and lack of using it.

For a report on basic infrastructures (not just wastewater or storm drainage) you can visit the American Society of Civil Engineers

You can also get a basic layman’s picture here

More on sinkholes here.

Plumbing isn’t our only form of modern convenience. What other convenience would you miss if you were in the past?


An award-winning author of erotic romance, Monica Burns penned her first short romance story at the age of nine when she selected the pseudonym she uses today. From the days when she hid her stories from her sisters to her first completed full-length manuscript, she always believed in her dream despite rejections and setbacks. A workaholic wife and mother, Monica believes it’s possible for the good guy to win if they work hard enough.

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19 January 2011

The Duchess of Richmond's ball

I love parties. The picture to the left is from New Years Eve this year, when I spent a lovely evening drinking champagne and watching fireworks with some of my closest friends. But in my writing lately, I've been consumed with a much more more lavish party nearly two hundred years in the past. On 15 June 1815 the Duchess of Richmond gave a ball at the house in the Rue de Blanchiserie that she had her husband had taken in Brussels. Among the guests were many officers in the Allied Army, gathered in Belgium preparing for battle against Napoleon Bonaparte, recently escaped from exile on Elba and restored to power in France. A number of the aristocratic British ex-patriates who had taken up residence in Brussels that spring were present as well. So were a gilded assortment of diplomats, along with Belgian royals and dignitaries. Of course the Duke of Wellington, commander of the Allied Army, was on the guest list for the ball. He was an old friend of the Duke and Duchess of Richmond, looked on as a sort of indulgent uncle by their large family of children. Three of the Richmonds' sons were in the army.

The ballroom was a converted carriage house, where the Lennox children played battledore-and-shuttlecock and the youngest members of the family did their lessons. The duchess draped the rose trellis wallpaper with swags of crimson, gold, and black, the Royal colors of the Netherlands. Ribbons, wreaths, and flowers garlanded the pillars. It was a warm evening ,but the younger Lennoxes threw open the French windows that ran along one side of the room, letting in a welcome breeze. The duchess, a daughter of the Duke of Gordon, had engaged kilted sergeants and privates from the 92nd Foot and the 42nd Royal Highlanders to entertain the company with sword dances.

Rumors that the French were on the move swirled throughout the ballroom. Wellington was late, adding to the talk. By the time he arrived with a group of his aides-de-camp, as skilled at waltzing as they were at war, the duke had known for some hours that Napoleon has crossed the frontier from France. But he believed the reported attacks to the east were a feint. He thought the real attack would come from the west, to separate them from the sea and their supply lines. He needed confirmation before he could order the army to march. Meanwhile, he needed to forestall panic and also to confer with a number of his officers, who were conveniently gathered together at the ball.

Wellington confessed to the duchess's daughter, Georgiana Lennox, that the army was off tomorrow, but he gave every appearance of sang-froid. As the company moved into the hall on the way to supper, a mud-spattered officer, Harry Webster, pushed his way through the crowd. He had a message for the Prince of Orange. The twenty-three-year-old prince, commander of the Dutch-Belgian army based on his birth not his experience, tucked the message away unread, but Wellington asked to see it. Wellington read the message and at once ordered Webster to summon four horses for the Prince of Orange's carriage. The message, from Constant de Rebecque, whom the prince had left in charge at his headquarters, revealed that Bonaparte had crossed the Sambre river at Charleroi. He was attacking not from the west but on the Allies' eastern flank, trying to separate them from their Prussian allies.

Wellington maintained a cheerful demeanor through supper, laughing with young Georgiana Lennox and his Brussels flirt, Lady Frances Webster. But after supper, he asked the Duke of Richmond if he had a map of Belgium in the house. In the duke's study, Wellington stared down at the map spread on the desk and declared that Bonaparte had humbugged him. He had ordered the army to concentrate at the crossroads of Quatre Bras, but he feared he would not be able to hold the French there. He pressed his thumb against the small village near which he would then have to fight Napoleon. Waterloo.

Meanwhile in the hall and ballroom, the illusion that they were at an ordinary ball had well and truly broken. The front door banged open and shut. Soldiers called for their horses, girls darted across the floor shouting the names of their beloveds, parents scanned the crowd for sons. The musicians had begun to play again in the ballroom, but the strains of the waltz vied with the call of bugles from outside. Georgiana Lennox slipped off to help her eldest brother, Lord March, pack up his things. She thought the young ladies still waltzing were "heartless," but for many of them it would be the last chance to dance with husbands, sweethearts, and brothers.

The Duchess of Richmond's ball has been dramatized by many novelists, including Thackery in Vanity Fair, Georgette Heyer in An Infamous Army, and Bernard Cornwell, in Waterloo, part of the Richard Sharpe series. I wrote about the ball myself in one of my historical romances, Shores of Desire, and I've been writing about again in my current WIP. Even though this is the second time I've approached the ball, I was a bit intimidated by such an iconic historical event. I'm currently on my third draft, and I'm starting to be fairly happy with how the scenes are shaping up. I had to write them in layers. The historical details, the physical setting--from the glitter of the ball to the chaos it dissolved into--the more intimate emotional landscape of my characters, real and fictional, saying farewell to loved ones.

Have you read fictional accounts of the Duchess of Richmond's ball or seen it dramatized on film? What party scenes stand out in your memory from historical fiction? Writers, is there an historical entertainment you both want to dramatize and find yourself intimidated by?

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17 January 2011

On a TIGHT deadline this week finishing the first draft of the second League of Second Sons book, so I’m afraid the blog is getting short shrift today . . . Ripe for Pleasure is up for preorder on Amazon now, so I thought I’d share a teaser. This scene takes place as my hero, Lord Leonidas, is trying to seduce his way into the home and bed of retired Courtesan, Viola Whedon . . .

“So, in exchange for your continued protection, I’m to become your mistress?” Viola smiled in spite of herself. Lord Leonidas had certainly found an original way of framing his proposal. He’d launched into it mere moments after the runner had left them.

Her savior shook his head, mad eyes dancing beneath long lashes. “No. In exchange for both continued physical protection, and my letting it be known in certain quarters that you are under such, you’ll become my lover.”

“The term you choose makes no difference, my lord. The end result is the same.”

“Oh, no, Mrs. Whedon. It’s not the same thing at all.”

Viola let out an unsteady breath. The hint of a growl in his voice set her nerves on edge, and made her nipples tighten until they pressed uncomfortably against the stiff wall of her stays.

She wanted this man, much as she hated to admit it. Wanted him badly enough to consider breaking every rule she’d ever made for herself. And that was all the more reason to resist the impulse. The last time she’d felt this way, it had been disastrous.

“No?” Her voice came out embarrassingly weak, almost breathy. She swallowed and balled up the hand he couldn’t see until her nails bit into her palm.

Calm. Serene. Unflappable. That was what she was famous for being; what gave her the allure of being unobtainable. Calm, serene . . .

“No.” He smiled and abandoned his post by the cold grate to claim the chair across from her. His long legs stretched across the small space between them, boots nearly tangling in her skirts. Viola drew her feet back and tucked them under her chair. He grinned, clearly aware of her withdrawal.

“A lover, Mrs. Whedon, puts his partner’s pleasure first. Or rather, her pleasure is his pleasure.” He leaned forward, close enough for the scent of bay rum, warm skin, and sun-dried linen to wash over her. Her mouth watered, forcing her to swallow. One corner of his mouth kicked up as though he knew. “Just as his, is hers.”

Viola settled back into the embrace of her chair, moving away from the dizzying scent of him. She traced the bargello work with a nail, eyes on the intricate needlework that covered the chair rather than on Vaughn. “Her protector’s pleasure is always a mistress’s­—”

“Exactly my point, ma’am. When has your pleasure ever been the first and most important concern of either person in your bed?”

Her eyes snapped up, riveted to him.

Never. At least not since Stephen died and perhaps not even then . . . She pushed the memory away. Men paid for their pleasure to be the only concern. That was the whole point. Whether wife or mistress, a woman’s pleasure was of little import.

A bubble of panic clawed its way up her chest and lodged beneath her heart, making it nearly impossible to breathe. To suggest that there was some mythical third option of lover made her want to slap him, but it also sparked a wild desire for him to prove what he said. Her lamentable curiosity was going to get her into trouble yet again. At least this time, she had no reputation to lose. No family to embarrass or disappoint.

“So, in exchange for being allowed to put my pleasure first, you’ll slay all my dragons.” She did her best to be dismissive, to make his proposal sound as ridiculous as it was.

Lord Leonidas chuckled, a low, throaty sound that curled around her. “In exchange for being allowed to attempt to pleasure you, I’ll slay any damn thing you like.”

Viola sucked in a breath. His blue eye was steady, sincere, but the green one held a hint of mischief. That was the eye to watch, the one that gave away his secrets. It wasn’t as simple as he made it out to be, but she’d be damned if she could fathom what his real motivation was. A bet perhaps? The challenge of climbing into bed with the most infamous whore in England without so much as tuppance changing hands?

“In fact, I propose to seduce you in stages, my dear. To make you beg for each and every intimacy.”

“Beg?” A thrill coursed through her as her last shred of dignity evaporated. Her hands and feet began to tingle as heat pooled in her belly. The air between them crackled with tension, lust recognizing lust. What sort of man bothered to seduce a woman whose bed others had merely paid to enter? How badly did she really want to find out?

“Beg,” he echoed with a conviction that unnerved her.

The muscles in his thighs bunched as he rose, straining the seams of his breeches. His large, square hands smoothed his coat into place, the subtle, striped silk sliding across his chest to mask the magnificent waistcoat beneath. Viola sucked in her bottom lip and caught it between her teeth, resisting the sudden urge to touch him—unable not to imagine those hands touching her.

If she clung to almost gaudy waistcoat, crushed the embroidered panels with both hands, would he carry her to the chaise? Or would he simply sink with her to the silk carpet beneath their feet?

How long had it been now since a man had touched her? Could it really be almost a year? And how much longer than that had it been since she’d had a man with any real skill in her bed? Years? Forever? Never? The ones worth bedding were never the ones who could afford to keep her.

It simply didn’t bear thinking about. A sudden wave of regret flooded through her. This wasn’t the life she was supposed to be living . . . not the one she’d been raised to expect nor the one she’d dreamt of as a girl. Not even close.

Lord Leonidas circled around the back of her chair and leaned over her. “But for now, Mrs. Whedon,” his breath washed over her ear, and she shivered, “I’m afraid I’ll have to leave you to your afternoon.” He inched closer, until she could feel the slight abrasion of his cheek against hers, until the scent of bay rum flooded every pore. “You might indulge me and spend it imagining just what I might do, if allowed to touch you only below the knee, to induce you to beg me to touch your thigh.”

And then he was gone, boot heels sounding smartly on the wooden floors of her hall, leaving her alone in her boudoir, flushed with anger and quaking with need. All she could think about was those long-fingered hands sliding up her calf . . . The bastard.

14 January 2011

Pinkerton's Lady Nemesis: The Wild Rose of Washington

Known as “the first private eye,” Alan Pinkerton set up his North-West Detective Agency in 1850. His motto “We Never Sleep” proved true during the Civil War, when he aborted an assassination attempt on President Lincoln in Baltimore; Lincoln, on his way to Washington for his inauguration, was so impressed with Pinkerton’s intelligence-gathering that he offered him a job.

In 1856 Pinkerton had created the Female Detective Bureau, and though his sons tried to disband the fledgling organization, the lady detectives proved their worth and thrived, particularly during the Civil War. The first female Pinkerton agents were Kate Warne, an attractive 23-year-old widow, and Hattie Lawton, also a widow. Both women were vital to Pinkerton’s intelligence gathering in the riotously amoral atmosphere of Washington where Confederate agents moved and mingled, and female supporters of Dixie flocked to the center of wartime activity and carried out astonishing feats of spying.

One unforgettable spy was the Washington socialite Rose Greenhow, known as “The Wild Rose.” She was the aunt of Stephen Douglas, and while his loyalty to Lincoln was never in doubt, Aunt Rose favored the South and ran Pinkerton a merry chase that ended finally in her death.

Rose moved in the very highest circles. Widowed in 1854, she established herself as hostess for James Buchanan, but she sympathized with the South. When war broke out, she joined a Confederate ring of women spies, and her grandest coup came in July 1861 when she transmitted messages by courier giving details of General Irvin McDowell’s plans. This enabled the South to prepare for the first battle of Bull Run with an ace up its sleeve.

Rose had elegant manners and great beauty; she captivated statesmen, diplomats, legislators, and generals, and within weeks she had established a network of spies and informants extending as far as Texas. When word came to Allan Pinkerton that the society belle was leaking secrets, he put Rose under secret surveillance.

Rose behaved as if she were untouchable. Tailing her and some lady friends to a picnic, Pinkerton discovered proof that she had obtained blueprints for certain fort defenses and had, in addition, developed a plan to conquer the forts by spiking their guns, kidnapping General McClellan, and cutting telegraph wires.

Rose and her ladies knew they were under surveillance but treated it as a game. The Confederate spy tried everything she could to throw Pinkerton off her trail, but Pinkerton managed to break into her mansion while she was away. While he missed a note from Confederate President Jefferson Davis, thanking her for the Bull Run information, his agents uncovered much incriminating evidence, including her diary. Pinkerton did discover that a young officer, one Captain Ellison, had been abstracting papers from confidential files. One night, during a rainstorm, hey followed the captain, but he ducked into the doorway of the Greenhow mansion.

Pinkerton and his men stood across the street, and when a lamp was lit in a front room, he removed his boots and clambered up on the shoulders of one agent to peer in. Inside, Ellison was handing over a map and describing fortifications in detail; when he emerged an hour later from Rose’s bedroom, Pinkerton put two and two together. Ellison’s quarters were searched and evidence uncovered that would condemn him to death. However, he hanged himself before Pinkerton could interrogate him.

Pinkerton continued to watch the Greenhow mansion around the clock. In August a civil warrant was issued for Rose’s arrest; Pinkerton and 3 men, accompanied by female agent Hattie Lawson,
found Rose at home. When she answered the door, she immediately tried to swallow a coded message, but Pinkerton tore it from her mouth. Rose then sat calmly while the men ransacked her house, unearthing a quantity of incriminating material: ordnance records detailing arms and ammunition, copies of troop orders, even her diary, which incriminated a broad collection of Washington citizenry.

Thus unmasked, Rose and her youngest daughter, Little Rose, were placed under house arrest; her Confederate agents continued to pay her visits, but they fell straight into Pinkerton’s hands. Pinkerton then used these men (and women) as double agents–feeding false information to the Confederate capital.

The spy ring was huge; scarcely a prominent Washington family remained un-implicated, and Pinkerton had a field day arresting agents. He also insisted that Rose be incarcerated at the Old Capitol building, planning to spirit her off to a regular prison in secret, but Rose was forewarned.
When she departed the Old Capitol, the streets were jammed with supporters, but it did little good: she was imprisoned in the Old Congressional Boardinghouse.

Rose’s resolve hardened and, even though in prison, she continued her espionage activities. When Pinkerton uncovered a cache of love letters from Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, he thought he finally had her, but while it discredited the senator, he was proved innocent of spying. Later, she managed to trick an Army officer into divulging details of McClellan’s campaign, which were then published in a Richmond newspaper.

She was questioned and remained in prison at Pinkerton’s insistence, but over his objections, Rose was offered parole on condition that she sign an oath not to aid the enemy. She refused, but she was released anyway. Rose and two other women accused of spying werthen handed over to the Confederacy.

In Richmond, Rose was revered. Her book, “My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington,” published in London, became a bestseller. She went abroad, captivated Napoleon III and dined with Queen Victoria; then she met Earl Granville, a powerful political figure in England.

A widower, Granville and Rose became engaged, whereupon she planned to return to the Confederacy to deliver her diplomatic report to Jefferson Davis. She sailed on the British ship Condor, but it ran aground in a storm off Wilmington, North Carolina. Rose insisted that the captain lower a boat for her escape, which he did; however, the boat capsized near the shore.

Rose had sewn hundreds of gold sovereigns into her corset and underclothing; weighted down, she sank and was drowned. When her body was recovered, she was given a state funeral and buried in Oakdale Cemetery, Wilmington.

Little Rose, safely installed and educated in a convent in France during her mother’s spying career, grew up to be a professional actress.

And Allan Pinkerton went on capture railroad thieves, forgers, counterfeiters, wiretappers, and illegal inside traders, etc. and also to infiltrate and arrest members of the Molly Maguires.

Source: Allan Pinkerton, The First Private Eye, by James MacKay.

Historical Fiction or Fictionalized History?

Diane’s post the other day, on rediscovered favorites, got me thinking about the historical novels of my youth. Jean Plaidy was my bread and butter. I started out on Victoria Victorious and worked my way backwards through the Queens of England. They weren’t remote historical characters to me; they were friends, neighbors, near relations. I knew their most intimate secrets—or assumed I did. As a pre-teen, the border line between research and imagination was still unclear to me and I took everything I read as the expression of an absolute and objective truth.

Looking back, most of the books I devoured as a pre-teen were less historical fiction and more fictionalized history: Jean Plaidy, Norah Lofts, Anne-Marie Selinko, Anya Seton. All purported to convey the facts of the life of a specific historical character, embroidered with dialogue and physical detail, staying close to the facts while speculating as to the intangibles: motivations, emotions.

Then there were the books I’ll call historical fiction, ones in which my favorite historical characters put in cameos and where actual historical events played pivotal roles, but the focus remained on the lives and loves of imaginary figures inserted into the historical narrative. Into this category fell Karleen Koen’s Through A Glass Darkly, set against the Hanoverian ascension, but focused on the personal travails of the fictional granddaughter of a fictional ducal house that sounds a great deal like—but is not—that of Marlborough. The same was true of another of my favorites, Mary Lide’s Ann of Cambray, in which the fictional heroine finds herself swept up in the civil war between Matilda and Stephen. The hero and heroine are entangled with real events and real people, but are themselves constructs of the imagination.

The lines are relatively clear in fictionalized history. One can tinker with the intangibles (Selinko turns Desiree Clary’s marriage to Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte into a passionate love match, rather than a lackluster political arrangement), but not the basic facts.

What does the writer of historical fiction owe the historical record?

Once we’ve taken that step of inserting our own creations into the historical narrative—placing them in conversations with real people (mocking cravats with Beau Brummell, plotting rebellion with Bonnie Prince Charlie), giving them a role in historical affairs—we’ve already tinkered with truth. It doesn’t matter if our borrowed personages are voicing phrases they are on record as having spoken—they couldn’t have uttered those words to our characters, because our characters are emanations of our imaginations. In short, they didn’t exist. Once we’ve already pushed at the elastic boundaries of history to include our fictional creations, how much farther can we reasonably push?

It makes an interesting academic question, but it proved a very practical problem for me in the writing of my latest book, The Orchid Affair. Orchid Affair is set around a conspiracy that came to fruition—and fizzled—in spring of 1804, as various royalist groups conspired to abduct Bonaparte (there was some disagreement as to whether “abduct”, was, in fact, a euphemism for “assassinate”) and replace him with a member of the royal family. There’s an excellent novel to be written about the conspiracy as it occurred—and as it unraveled. It’s a fascinating and complex story of daring plans and larger-than-life egos.

My book is about a fictional governess-turned-spy inserted into the household of a fictional assistant to the Prefect of Paris. The book opens with the interrogation of Jean-Pierre Querelle, a member of the conspiracy, who was actually interrogated in the manner and on the date specified. (In my version, he’s interrogated by my hero. This was not, in fact, the case, because my hero didn’t exist.) In the original draft of the novel, I tried to stay close to the actual actors and all the crosses and double-crosses involved.

There was a problem with this. Rather than history serving as a backdrop to my story, my hero and heroine were being overwhelmed by the technical details of the story. While I did still pin my plot to the main episodes of the actual event (i.e. various interrogations, the capture of the primary conspirator), I ruthlessly omitted many of the intermediate steps and characters, substituting my own characters’ invented actions instead, while trying to remain true to the spirit of the actual events.

This was my compromise: I didn’t have any real historical actors do anything that they hadn’t actually done, but I did omit a great deal of what they did do, both for simplicity's sake (for some reason, French plots always seem to involve multiple people with the same last name) and to provide my own characters room to grow. One of these days, I’d love to tell the story of the Cadoudal Affair in full—but The Orchid Affair wasn’t the place.

Writers, how do you deal with juggling your characters and historical fact? Readers, how much pushing of the historical boundaries are you comfortable with?

11 January 2011

Rediscovered Favorites

Last spring, I came into some unexpected money from my writing. (Many thanks to the Thai people for finding their way to my historicals through my vampires!) I was so stunned that I kept an ancient promise to myself: I bought the top series written by a favorite author, someone so long forgotten that she doesn’t appear on any social networks, is nearly invisible on eBay, and her Google hits are, well, slim.

Elswyth Thane (1900-1984) was a romance author, screenwriter and the wife of Dr. William Beebe, the great naturalist. (Yes, the books came after her marriage.) Her experience in the theater and his world influence some of her works. But more important, she loved history.

I bought her backlist with the found money because I’d read my copies to shreds. I could quote scenes. I went to places she’d written about and I looked for the people, events, buildings. She could sum up a character in a few lines, or even a phrase.

Elswyth Thane is one of the very authors who’s managed to field both alpha and beta heroes that I adore. I’m always fascinated by her ability to find the “telling detail,” even in the most romantic scene.

Here are two scenes where the hero finds his true love. The first is from the end of DAWN’S EARLY LIGHT, where Tibby has literally followed Julian to the American Revolution’s Carolina battles, just to be close to him.

As he rode he heard behind him the triumphant huzzah of the British infantry charge. A wounded Continental rose from the ground almost under his horse’s feet and caught at the bridle.

“Get to the rear, you fool!” Julian shouted, trying to control his rearing horse. “The surgeons are at Green Spring, you know that as well as I do! No, I can’t help you, make for the rear, man, there is a bayonet charge coming!”

The soldier went on shouting back something which was inaudible in the battle din, until Julian’s glance followed the man’s pointing finger. With an exclamation he swung out of the saddle to kneel beside the crumpled thing on the ground.

“How did this happen, I left him with the surgeon – he had no business to follow me –” Speech died in him. Under his hand, as he pushed back the open waistcoat and shirt to expose the wound, was the small white breast of a girl, with a slow crawl of blood across it.

“Tibby!” Julian gathered her into his arms and stood up, holding her against him. “Oh, my Tibby, I should have known!”

The second scene is from the beginning of EVER AFTER, set during Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee summer of 1897. Aristocrat Bracken Murray is cynical and world-weary, after his wife leaves him for another man – until the very young Lady Dinah Campion is thrown from her horse in front of him.

“You look sort of green around the gills,” said the choir-boy’s voice. “Did it give you a nasty turn when I went off?”

“It did. I’m frightened out of a year’s growth. Look.” He held up one hand in mid-air, making no effort to control its visible trembling. His heart labored unbearably in his side, there was a thin singing in his ears. He had received some sort of cosmic shock, which he tried to use for her benefit. “You can’t lunge about the countryside scaring people to death like this,” he said, still speaking as though he had entered a cathedral during service. Not sixteen yet, you blithering fool, it’s against the law, his own thoughts ran – never mind, I can wait – two more years – three, perhaps – Lord, it will take me that long to get into the clear myself – I can wait – but not forever –

“Well, don’t take it so hard, I’m all right,” she said unsympathetically.

EVER AFTER is the third in Elswyth Thane’s Williamsburg series of novels and is a brilliant, sun-filled story. THE LIGHT HEART, the fourth in the series, is its darker counterpart and takes the family saga up into World War One. I always dither over which book I prefer. EVER AFTER is pure joy but I love the character in THE LIGHT HEART. Every one of the main characters – Phoebe, Oliver, Rosalind, and Charles – are utterly real and completely dear to me. I agonize over their dilemmas and understand their choices, even when I’m crying. Thane’s understated portrayal of Oliver and Charles’ friendship, two British officers supporting each other during bitter crises at home and war, eternally amazes me.

Not all of her books are autobuys, especially outside the Williamsburg series. Also, any new reader has to be prepared for her rather one-sided depiction of Nazis and the German people. (In my opinion, she wrote about contemporary events where they were the enemy, i.e., World Wars One and Two. Everyone has their blind spots – and her individual German characters are very multi-dimensional.)

So I’m blissfully happy I rediscovered my old favorite. Now I’ve started a wish list of other authors I still remember and want to explore more deeply.

Are there any old favorites you’d like to rediscover? Any authors you still learn from?


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