History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

30 May 2012

Goodbye to All That

I was something of a history snob in my youth. My snobbery was entirely chronological. The older it was, the more worthy of study. You’d think this sort of attitude would fit one for a career in Classics, but, like Shakespeare I had little Latin and less Greek. My Latin is of the “Cornelia et Flavia cantant sub arbore” variety (points to you if you recognize the reference!) and my Greek is only useful if you want someone to recite the first verse of the Odyssey or talk about Dikaiopolis's ill-fated attempts to make it to the Festival.

So, by process of elimination, I fished up in sixteenth century Britain.

 Occasionally, I would go slumming in eighteenth century France, or hang out with Wellesley (not yet Wellington) in India, but on one thing I was very clear: anything after 1815 Just Didn’t Count. Sure, one might read the odd novel set in Victorian England or thrill to M.M. Kaye’s tales of India in the days of the Raj, or, of course, cackle maniacally at the antics of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster, but that was for recreation, not study. Everything just got dull, dull, dull post-industrialization. Mechanized warfare? Killed off Romance entirely.

The entire stretch of twentieth century history was a blind spot for me. I knew the rough outlines—what school child didn’t?—and could confidently recite archducal assassinations, alliances, and ententes, but the cultural history of the time held no interest for me. I squirmed my way grudgingly through my Modern Britain field in grad school, grumbling about being forced to spend so much time in the twentieth century at the expense of the eighteenth. What was khaki compared to knee breeches?

That was until I found my imagination caught by Kenya in the 1920s and started work on a novel that bounces between 1910s and 20s England and 1920s Kenya. It quickly became clear that World War I, even if I avoided the war itself, was a pivot point in the novel, changing my characters and the world around them. I started reading up on that period directly before and after World War I and found myself ashamed that I had never done so before.

There are a wealth of excellent primary and secondary sources available. I’d grown up on Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower, but added to it Juliet Nicholson’s far more intimate portrait of the old world just before it exploded: The Perfect Summer, a social history of the summer of 1911 which contrasts vividly to its sequel, The Great Silence, an examination of the immediate aftermath of the war. Part of what makes reading the pair together quite so effective is that the author follows up on many of the same sources, providing a direct before and after in the lives of specific individuals.

The work that left the deepest impact on me, however, was Robert Graves’ Good-Bye to All That, his recollection of his experiences during the Great War. Reading it, one could understand fully just what sent that generation of young men reeling—not just the shell shock, but the mad inanity of it all, the sense of lack of purpose and direction, the gross incompetence. Small wonder that so many talented young men began to question the world in which they’d been raised, or found themselves emotional wrecks, forever scarred by what they had seen and experienced. As I was writing The Ashford Affair, many of Graves’s experiences became those of my hero, Frederick.

What are your historical blind spots?

16 May 2012

Mother's Day Thoughts

I just celebrated my first Mother's Day as a mom, while writing a novella in which my heroine is pregnant. While sipping a caramel latte and writing in a café with my daughter, I found myself thinking about mothers in books. So many of them are absent. Jane Eyre, Emma Woodhouse, Anne Elliott, and my own Suzanne all lost their mothers at birth or early in life.

When mothers are present in the lives of their fictional offspring, they often create complications. Mrs. Bennet nearly ruins her daughters' marriage prospects. Even the sweet and sympathetic Mrs. Dashwood leans a great deal on Elinor. Percy Blakeney's mother suffered from mental illness and one has the sense she was absent long before she died and took up a great deal of his father's time, so he had an isolated and lonely childhood. My own hero Malcolm had a mother who was an erratic presence in his life growing up and whose death left him scarred in ways he won't talk about. Francis Crawford begins the Lymond Chronicles with a mother who represents the most stable relationship in his life, but the secrets she keeps from him create one of the major conflicts in the series.

I suspect the numerous heroes and heroines with mothers who are absent or less than ideal stems from the fact that loving, supportive, engaged parents could do a long way toward solving their fictional children's problems or at least softening the crises in their children's lives. Though of course, even the best of parents can't protect their children from all trauma. The Duchess of Denver is a warm, supportive, intelligent mother, and Lord Peter Wimsey still suffers from plenty of angst. The duchess worries about him, but being a sensible woman she knows she can't protect him from everything.

Fear for one's children and the knowledge that one can't protect them from all of life's travails is of course something all parents grapple with. It's particularly complicated if the parents lead dangerous lives like my pregnant heroine Suzanne. I've read some discussions where people say that parenthood makes it too difficult for action heroes and heroines to go into danger, but I like writing about the tension of characters who are trying to balance being parents with a life of adventure. Yes, it get messy and they make mistakes, but that makes for interesting character dilemmas. And those dilemmas echo, in a more extreme way, the challenges all parents face balancing parenthood with the other aspects of their life.

How do you feel about parents in fiction? Who are some of your favorite fictional mothers? What do you think of heroines who balance motherhood with a life of action?

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12 May 2012

The Dark Lady

I'm really excited about my friend Marie Claremont's upcoming book The Dark Lady. I'm especially entranced with her cover. THIS is what romance covers should look like. I want to know where she's going, what she's doing, who she is. Marie agreed to visit with us and talk a little about the inspiration for The Dark Lady:
Back in 2008 I was an aspiring Regency writer. I adored the costumes, the comedy, the houses. What wasn’t to love? And at the time I had every intention of finding my niche in that very popular genre period. I was even on my way, I’d had agent requests and an editor request for my regency. And then it happened. Love at first sight. . . Ahem. . . Or first read. A book that year was getting a lot of buzz at the San Francisco Romance Writers of America Conference. I picked up a free copy of Meredith Duran’s Duke of Shadows, a passionate novel set in India and London during the 1850s. That book gripped me and then it never really let go. It inspired me to start listening to the darker characters in my head and suddenly, my happy, sunny regencies disappeared, replaced by atmospheric, dark, and tortured characters in Victorian England. Now as a career move, this was crazy. Dark wasn’t selling, but I was in love and isn’t that what romance writers do? Succumb to love?

There’s something about Victorian England that is utterly captivating. There is such a cultural contradiction going on. On the surface, there is this incredibly rigid society. Yet, underneath all this outward austerity dwelt a fantastic world rife with scandal, insanity, and sex. Torture porn was all the rage. There were houses of prostitution that specialize in whipping (for men!). In the 1850s there were about 9,000 prostitutes in London alone, and yet extreme innocence (to the point of girls having no idea what sex was or that babies did indeed grow inside a woman’s body) was one of the most valued characteristics in ladies. This strange sexual duality in Victorian London is absolutely fascinating to me.

 And then there’s the drugs. Drugs were rampant in Victorian England. Opium hit London and enveloped it like wildfire.  There were no drug laws. You could buy opiate derivatives at the chemist’s, no prescription necessary. Laudanum, a mixture of opium and alcohol, were available in unlimited supply. Victorians chugged that stuff like it was candied water. There are so many notable users at this time I could write a blog entirely based upon those names. A few are Elizabeth Siddal (The famous model to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Lewis Carrol, and Elizabeth Barret Browning. Godfrey’s Cordial was especially popular and was used to keep babies from crying. Yes. Opium for babies. But what you also must understand was that laudanum was handed out left, right, and center to women for the cure of hysteria, mental cramps, and nerves. Ultimately, looking back through my contemporary lens, it was also used as a cure for female boredom and lack of purpose. And then laudanum’s big brothers heroine and morphine came to town. There were actually jeweled hypodermic syringes and cases so that women could carry them around in their reticules.

Now, why would anyone want to dwell for months in this world writing about people who are sexually repressed and strung out on drugs in a restrictive society? But here’s the thing, I get to write daily about characters who go right up to the edge of self destruction and come back. They find love, they find peace, they find a way to cope with the monsters inside and around them. To me finding love in the midst of the horrors of life is the ultimate romance. And I love writing about second chances. All my characters are coming back from horrible pasts and finding the beauty in each other. 

I’m so excited The Dark Lady’s cover because I feel it represent the dark world of the Victorians. Yet, there is hope. The grass is verdant, the trees are about to bud and my heroine is striding into a future, hopefully far different than her wintery past.

07 May 2012

Wilt thou yet confess?

Hi, Rose here! As I mentioned in my last post, I'm doing research for my next book, about a revenue officer, a governess, and a ghost in Orkney (tentatively titled The Ghost and Miss Moore). I've always liked stories with ghost characters, but real-life ghost sightings have never been much of an interest of mine, so I'm reading The Haunted: a Social History of Ghosts by Owen Davies. It's a fascinating book and it's been giving me lots of ideas for how I want my ghost character to work!

He's a murder victim seeking justice (or maybe vengeance...he's not entirely a nice ghost), which has been a popular kind of ghost over the centuries--so popular, in fact, that murder investigations have been opened because of ghost sightings, up through the early part of the eighteenth century. In one case in 1660, a Westmoreland magistrate investigated the death of Robert Parkin because of a report that Robert's ghost had appeared to a man in the parish church crying "I am murdered I am murdered I am murdered."

In 1728, a Dorset coroner exhumed a body because of several sightings of the boy's ghost. In this case the ghost didn't even speak--its appearance was enough to indicated foul play, despite no previous suspicion about his death. Upon examining the body, the coroner decided he had really been murdered.

A painting of Macbeth seeing Banquo's ghost
"Never shake thy gory locks at me!"

Murder victims sometimes haunted their killers: a servant who had killed his master and gotten clean away  to Ireland was driven to turn himself in by a headless ghost who appeared to him every night demanding "Wilt thou yet confess?" Sometimes they haunted other acquaintances.

David Garrick in his iconic just-caught-sight-of-the-Ghost pose.

One of the most upsetting incidents described in the book is this one:

The astrologer and occultist John Heydon (1629-c.1670) recounted how one of his mother's maids was pulled out of her bed one night by the ghost of a lover named John Stringer, who had recently been murdered by a jealous admirer. Despite three doors leading to her bedroom being locked, the maid 'had the right side of her haire and headclothes clean shaved or cut away' by Stringer's ghost.
That poor woman! Whether you believe in ghosts, or whether you think she imagined the ghost out of guilt and shaved her own hair, it's an awful story. I hope the "jealous admirer" was prosecuted, and didn't get to continue stalking and attacking her and her loved ones.

Sometimes ghosts appeared to strangers at the site of their hidden graves. This tied in with another ghost tradition, that souls who didn't receive Christian burial would walk until their bodies were found and interred in consecrated ground. In 1806, in a town near Manchester, the townsfolk drained a deep pool after a recently missing man's ghost repeatedly appeared over it at midnight, leading to suspicion he had been murdered. His body was actually found at the bottom, although the evidence indicated he had drowned accidentally.

Francis Grose [in his 1787 A Provincial Glossary, with a Collection of Local Proverbs, and Popular Superstitions] wondered why the ghosts of those murdered did not go straight to the nearest justice of the peace, rather than hang about their burial place frightening passers-by. 'Ghosts have undoubtedly forms and customs peculiar to themselves,' he concluded.

Ghosts historically have not talked much, although apparently they talked more in the past!

Brutus and the Ghost of Caesar 1802
Great Caesar's ghost! "Aye, at Philippi."

Completely silent ghosts became the norm to a much greater extent over the course of the nineteenth century. Generally ghosts who did speak were wrong-righting ghosts. (Although there were exceptions! In 1706 Mr. Shaw, a fellow of St John's College, Oxford, chatted with the ghost of a dead colleague for two hours before receiving his warning of untimely death.) Murder victims were the most common. (Conflicts over inheritance were also a big one: "Mother's ghost appeared to me and she says I get the antique dining set!") Ebenezer Sibly, eighteenth century writer on astrology and the occult (and huge racist), insisted that only murder victims could speak (and possibly only those who had been killed in "circumstances uncommonly horrid and execrable), because the traumatizing memory did "more powerfully operate upon the faculties of the apparition, so as to enable it to frame the similitude of a voice, so as to discover the fact, and give some leading clue to detect and punish the wicked perpetrator."

My ghost is going to be a bit more talkative, since he's a prominent character in the book, but this research is giving me ideas for how to make him more distinctly ghostly and disturbing.

What's your favorite ghost story? (Either a famous one, or one that happened to you or someone you know...)

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02 May 2012

Of Toothpaste and the Titanic

Can I get a show of hands -- how many people watched the 4-hour ABC miniseries, TITANIC, penned by Julian Fellowes of DOWNTON ABBEY fame? I vastly preferred this screenplay to Cameron's treacly, overindulgent, and overrated feature film, which strained all bounds of credulity; and I have a number of friends who still maintain that the movie classic, A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, has thus far been their favorite retelling of the maritime tragedy of the night of April 14-15, 1912.

With this being the centennial year of the unsinkable ship's epic sinking, all things Titanic-related are hot, hot, hot.

But even with the fairly sophisticated and laudable Fellowes script, which was very DOWNTON ABBEY or UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS on the high seas, for me, it lacked what the Cameron version lacked as well. I want to see the stories of the actual historical personages on board.

John Jacob Astor, who sailed with his wife.

At least the Broadway musical version cared enough to care. How can you film the story of the sinking of the Titanic and not even once mention the Strausses, the elderly department store moguls who decided to perish in each other's arms. The thing I remember most about the mega musical is their duet as the ship goes down.

Isidor and Ida Strauss memorial, Upper West Side of Manhattan

I'm more interested in the real people than in archetypes from first class to steerage. Yeah, yeah, there was an enormous class chasm in 1912, and the Titanic herself represents it in microcosm. But tell me something I don't already know. Enlighten and educate me while you're also entertaining me.

the a la carte Italian restaurant on board run by chef Gaspare Gatti

I came across a fascinating article by Neil Goswami, which first appeared in the Bennington Banner on March 28, 2012. It's the story of Charles Cresson Jones, an actual (regular, not filthy rich or frighteninghly poor) person who perished aboard Titanic. Jones was the manager of the 4000-acre estate in Southern VT known as Fillmore Farm, which was owned by the Colgate family--yes, as in Colgate toothpaste.

Charles Cresson Jones penned a letter to his friend aboard the Titanic and posted it April 10, 1912—the day the infamous ship began its maiden voyage to America. It was the disastrous events just four days later, however, that have given great value to his letter and other accompanying papers.
Jones was born Jan. 22, 1866, outside of Philadelphia, but at the time of his death aboard the Titanic he was residing in Bennington. He worked as superintendent of the vast Fillmore Farms, the 4,000-acre estate of the Colgate family, founders of the toothpaste brand. A shepherd by trade, Jones had journeyed to England to purchase sheep from a Dorset, England, farmer named James Foot.
But just four days into its journey the new White Star liner, Titanic—the largest passenger ship of its time—struck a hefty iceberg, tearing a 300-foot gash in the ship's hull, and securing its fate. Some who survived the sinking reported that Jones responded to the collision and subsequent chaos with bravery, helping to load women and children into life boats.
A friend from New York, who remains unnamed, called to Jones to don a life vest and follow him into the water. Unable to swim, Jones declined, and reportedly drew a cigar from his pocket and calmly lit it. He perished shortly thereafter, along with more than 1,500 others, as the ship sunk into the icy water in the early hours of April 15. His body was later recovered by the ship Mackay-Bennet and returned to Bennington, where it was buried in the Old First Church cemetery in Old Bennington.
Jones had written his last letter to Foot, on Titanic stationery, and it begins, “My Dear Friend, just had lunch and a cigar and feel fine ...”
Jones went on to thank Foot for his hospitality during the trip. “ want you to realize that I most truly appreciate all you have done and are doing to make my visit pleasant and hope to return the favor sometime,” he wrote.
Now, nearly a century later, relatives of Foot have rediscovered the letter, along with telegrams between Foot and Jones' employer, James C. Colgate, and articles from the Bennington Evening Banner published in 1912. The material, now belonging to Foot's great-granddaughter, Penny Ems, of Hampshire, England, will be auctioned by Duke's Auctioneers of Dorcester.
“I would imagine my grandfather put them in the envelope and they have been there ever since,” Ems said. The letters, telegrams and newspapers were found by chance, she said. “We only found these papers after my father died and we were going through things,” Ems said. “My son opened the envelope and spotted the Titanic paper.”
The sale of the documents is expected to fetch a fair amount at auction, according to Deborah Doyle of Duke's auction house. “Titanic memorabilia is very popular and there are many collectors on both sides of the Atlantic,” Doyle said. "It is difficult to estimate the value of a unique collection such as this, but it has been valued at between 8,000 and 10,000 pounds (or $15,000 to $18,000).”
“The story contained within these documents is very moving,” Doyle added. “Not only is there the letter written by Mr. Jones on White Star paper that arrived days before the Titanic sank, but there is all the correspondence after the sinking.”
The various types of materials included in the lot also make it rare and valuable, she said.
“There are telegrams that show the receding hope of finding Mr. Jones alive, then the newspaper articles from the Bennington Evening Banner with accounts of the disaster,” Doyle said. “One account described how Mr. Jones was seen on the ship after the collision preparing for his death.”
A telegram, from Colgate to Foot, sent on April 16 before Jones' death was confirmed, shows Colgate's despair. “No news fear the worst,” Colgate wrote.
Jones’ housekeeper, Elizabeth Mellinger, and her teenage daughter were also aboard the Titanic. They had been second class passengers, however, and survived the disaster because women and children were loaded into lifeboats first. Foot cabled back to Colgate that Mellinger and her daughter had not seen Jones.
“They had not seen Mr. Jones since Sunday afternoon. Not a word of any kind has been heard from him, and we can only conjecture that he met his death like the man he was,” Foot wrote. Foot also wrote that he had taken the Mellingers in after the tragedy. “I took them immediately to my house, and they are still there,” he wrote. “Both seemed well, but yesterday morning when I cabled, I had received word that Mrs. Mellinger seemed to be feeling the reaction and was somewhat stunned.”
After Jones’s death was confirmed, Colgate continued to keep in touch with Foot, sending him newspaper articles from the Bennington Evening Banner. One article, published in May 1912, illustrates Jones’ last moments on the ship. A witness by the name of A.H. Barkworth told the Banner how he jumped into the water after the collision and saw Jones and another man called Mr. Gee still aboard.
“Jones and Gee were standing by, with arms on the rail, looking down. I imagine they were preparing for death,” Barkworth said.
Another Banner article published after Jones’s death was confirmed speaks to a possible premonition Jones had of his voyage. The report states that "for weeks before he left Fillmore he told the boys his ‘heart was not in the trip.’” He also told his assistant, Charlie Brettle, that “I'll never return. My books and accounts are all in good shape, and I want you to take charge of them.”
Copyright 2012 Bennington Banner. All rights reserved.

So -- do you have a favorite dramatization of the sinking of the Titanic? Are you more interested in the lives of the actual passengers, or do you derive just as much enjoyment from the versions that depict mainly archetypal characters who are representative of the times? Or ... are you utterly Titanic-ed out by now?

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