History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

29 April 2013

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in

I'm working on the second book in my Lively St. Lemeston series, Crimson Joy [ETA: since retitled True Pretenses], and I just did something that I've done before, that I'll probably do again, and that I always feel conflicted about:

I'm stealing a story. I'm taking something that happened to a real person, and giving it to my heroine. In this case, it's this anecdote, cited in a footnote of Electoral Behavior in Unreformed England, concerning “treating,” or the practice of patrons providing free food and drink for electors prior to a poll.

I had a vague recollection of this anecdote...he ran out of ale, so he opened up his expensive French brandy? I couldn't remember where I'd seen it, but I thought I might have posted it on my blog. After backreading for half an hour, I almost gave up. I don't need the real anecdote, I thought. It's fiction. Maybe I can improve on it, make it even better than the real thing.

Then I found the real thing. There is no improving on this. This is perfection. Unless it's apocryphal and someone's already improved on it! Who knows? Either way, I covet the glory of this anecdote for myself, and I will take it.

At the 1768 Northampton contest, the Earl of Halifax exhausted his store of mature port and turned in desperation to his choicest claret, whereupon the “rabble” deserted his side and joined the forces of the Earl of Northampton, “turning up their noses and vying ‘never to vote in the interest of a man who gave them sour port to drink.’”

In Crimson Joy, this happened to my heroine's grandfather. 

But I feel guilty. I feel like I'm cheating the Earl of Halifax somehow, or something. 

There's a similar piece of theft, of stealing directly from real life because nothing could possibly be more dramatic than the plain truth, in Sweet Disorder. 

In Life in Wellington's Army, Antony Brett-Jones devotes a bloodcurdling chapter to "The Wounded and Sick." One sentence wouldn't let me go: "From the windows of one convent amputated arms and legs were flung down into a square among wounded soldiers who lay waiting their turn to go before the surgeons, if they lived long enough."

I moved that to the aftermath of Badajoz and took it for my ex-officer hero (who didn't undergo an amputation but does have a limp and some chronic pain). Because I couldn't resist.

Who, exactly, am I stealing from? What are the possible negative consequences, to anyone, of moving a real event slightly in space and time? I don't really know. Sometimes I do genuinely, firmly oppose tweaking history for a story: when it covers up or simplifies injustice, and/or when it might be hurtful to people alive today. I made three tumblr posts on the subject just last week, one about Nazis and Captain America, and two about lobotomies

None of that really applies in these cases. But I can't avoid a lingering sense of unease, as if I'm picking history's pocket.

What do you think?

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22 April 2013

Spies, Loyalty, Betrayal, & the Napoleonic Wars

Recently, I did a very fun interview on Word Wenches with the wonderful Cara Elliott/Andrea Penrose about the release of The Paris Affair. Cara asked some wonderful questions, in particular about the themes of loyalty and betrayal that run through my books and why I chose the Napoleonic Wars as a setting for those stories. As often happens, those interview questions caused me to mull over things in my books. I've been thinking about it a lot in and around promoting The Paris Affair, finishing my WIP, and getting ready for the Merola Opera Program's annual Benefit (where I am with Mélanie above).

I first gravitated to the Regency/Napoleonic era through my love of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. But I also love spy stories, both James Bond adventure and the sort of intricate chess games and moral dilemmas John le Carré dramatizes so brilliantly. The Napoleonic Wars offers are a wonderfully rich setting for both types of story. So many different sides, so many different factions within sides. The French under Napoleon had been bent on conquest, but they had also brought much-needed reforms to many countries. Some liberal Spaniards saw supporting the French in the Peninsular War as the quickest route to progressive reform. And after the Napoleonic Wars, a number of the victors wanted to turn the clock back to before the French Revolution  and saw any hint of reform as one step away from blood in the streets. Friends easily melt into enemies and back again. Napoleon’s longtime foreign minister Prince Talleyrand  later became prime minister under the Bourbon restoration. Joseph Fouché who had been ruthless in using terror against enemies of the Bonapartist government, was equally ruthless in going after Napoleon’s supporters who were proscribed from the amnesty after Waterloo. In the midst of breakneck adventure, a love affair can have political consequences, a tactical decision can shatter a friendship, it can come down to a question not of whether or not commit betrayal but only of who or what to betray.

I’ve always been fascinated by moral dilemmas. And I’m intrigued by how romantic fidelity and betrayal can parallel other types of fidelity and betrayal (whether between husbands and wives or in their relationship with other characters or with a country or cause). I like writing stories of intrigue set in tumultuous times, but I think in those sorts of times (probably always but then more than ever) choices don’t tend to come down to easy, clear-questions of right and wrong. It’s interesting to see how characters wrestle with those issues and how the personal and the political intertwine. The possibility that a loved one or friend isn’t who you thought they were is perhaps one of our deepest fears in a relationship. And yet most of us are somewhat different people in different aspects of our lives and have different loyalties – to spouses, children, lovers, friends, causes, countries, work. Sometimes it isn’t so much a question of betrayal as of deciding which loyalty comes first. It’s not so far from the seemingly lofty sentiment of “I could not love thee, dear, so much, Lov’d I not Honour more” to betraying a lover for a cause.

Or so my heroine Suzanne might argue. Her husband Malcolm might have more difficulty with the idea. He takes personal loyalties very seriously, though he was the one who went off to the field at Waterloo and risked himself (though he wasn't a soldier) leaving his wife and son behind in Brussels. In the midst of the carnage, he wondered which loyalty he should have put first. While Suzanne, for different reasons, was wondering much the same thing. It's a question that continues to haunt both of them in The Paris Affair and to fascinate me as a writer.

Writers, do you choose time periods because they lend themselves particularly well to the type of stories you want to tell? Or does your choice of time period influence the stories you create? Readers, do you think you like to read about particular eras because of the type of stories and the issues in those stories that tend to work in those eras? What's the worst choice of loyalties you've encountered in a book? And what's your favorite spy story in any era?

photo: Drew Altizer

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15 April 2013

A Grim Almanac of Georgian London (Research Books)

My sister (who knows me so well) got me A Grim Almanac of Georgian London for my birthday. It’s an amazing little book, filled with snippets of horror (pigs eating discarded babies), scandal (the Duchess of Kingston’s bigamy trial [she got away with it!!!]), duels, and murders too numerous to recount.

One of the things I found very interesting was the number of killings that were found to be manslaughter rather than murder, for which the penalty was a burning on the hand (and nothing more). So, steal a handkerchief and go to the gallows (also, having sexual relations with an animal was a punishable by death!), stab a love rival in a fit of jealousy, get a burn on your hand and go about your business.

Today’s entry reads as follows:

15 April 1795 Daniel Mendoza was a world-champion boxer, whose style was scientific and included many defensive manoeuveres. This incorporated side-stepping, moving around,, ducking, blocking and avoiding punches. At the time, this was revolutionary; as a result of this new style, although he was only 5ft 7in and 160lb, Mendoza was able to overcome much larger opponents. He is the only middleweight ever to win the heavyweight championship of the world. However, on this day, Mendoza lost his title to John Jackson, who employed a tactic that would be considered ungentlemanly at least: he grabbed Mendoza’s long hair, held him, and beat him unconscious in the ninth round. Jackson’s own head was shaved, so other boxers could not play this dirty trick on him.

It’s a great book if you have an interest in the grittier aspects of life in London during the Georgian era. I already have several grim plot bunnies jumping about ...

08 April 2013

This makes the Bridegroom a Voter therefore never see my face if they are not married

I have exciting news this week! My agent (Kevan Lyon) and I sold my next book, Sweet Disorder, to Anne Scott at Samhain. I don't have a firm release date yet, but it looks like it's going to be early 2014. I'm so happy! I really love this story and I can't wait to share it with everyone.

Phoebe Sparks, writer of Improving Tales for children, has vowed never to marry again unless she's sure it won't turn into a bickering, resentful mess like her first marriage. The Honorable Nick Dymond has vowed never to get involved in his family's politicking. But Nick's mother couldn't care less about their vows. Nick has moped long enough about his curtailed army career and new limp, and any local resident who marries Phoebe will be legally entitled to a vote in her small town's upcoming Parliamentary election. So Nick's mother packs him off to the country with strict instructions to marry Phoebe off to the first local supporter of their political party he can find. When disaster strikes Phoebe's teenage sister, Phoebe is forced to consider selling her vote--and her hand--but as election intrigue grows darker, she has to admit that what she really wants is Nick.

This idea was suggested to me while reading Elaine Chalus's paper, "Women, Electoral Privilege and Practice in the Eighteenth Century," in Women in British Politics, 1760-1860: the Power of the Petticoat, ed. Kathryn Gleadle and Sarah Richardson. What I discovered is that women did have voting rights in England prior to the Reform Act of 1832.

I was completely shocked.

Of course, the number of women involved was very small (but I think it's important to remember that so was the number of voting men), and what those voting rights were, exactly, is not known and may never be known. First, let me explain a little bit about the unreformed (i.e. pre-1832) British electoral system (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unreformed_House_of_Commons).

It was very complicated.

political cartoon on the reform act of 1832, there's a lion and a dragon being slain by Britannia personnified and I don't even know
Political cartoon on the Reform Act, via Wikimedia Commons. What is up with that lion?

Okay. What follows is accurate to the best of my knowledge but as mentioned above IT'S VERY COMPLICATED, any corrections or elaborations welcome!

There were two kinds of districts: counties and boroughs. The county districts were, as the name implies, simply the traditional English counties. Each county sent 2 members to Parliament and the voters were forty-shilling freeholders, i.e. those who had property worth 40 shillings annually. (Even that is a simplification, though! I'm pretty sure that who exactly qualified as a freeholder, what kinds of non-property income were considered equivalent, and what kinds of documentation were needed in order to vote varied county to county.)

Boroughs were more complicated. They were, essentially, intended as urban districts. So there were a lot of towns that had these royal charters  giving them the right to send members to Parliament. The system was set up in the mid-14th century, though, so not only had a lot of towns that were pretty big in 1450 shrunk down to only a few residents, but there were huge new towns (especially the northern manufacturing towns like Manchester and Leeds) that didn't have parliamentary representation at all.

There were six main ways boroughs decided who was a voter (oh, and by the way, voters in the unreformed system had TWO votes each! they could split them between candidates, give them both to one, or only use one vote, depending on loyalties and electoral strategy [ETA 3/17/14: I've since realized this is not accurate--and fortunately was able to correct it in Disorder before publication! I'm pretty sure that actually, voters could vote for up to two CANDIDATES, and since there wasn't always a full slate of candidates from each party, this meant they could split their votes between parties, vote for two candidates from one party, or only vote for one candidate if their party was only running one]):

1. Burgage boroughs. In burgage boroughs, certain designated properties (called burgages) carried votes with them. So whoever owned the burgage cast the votes associated with it.

Burgage in Horsham with a plaque identifying it as such
"Circa 1500 A.D. This house built in the reign of HENRY VII was one of the ancient burgages of Horsham. Successive holders were mostly craftsmen  & merchants. In the earliest known survey & plan of Horsham, dated 1611 AD it is named Bishops of East St."
Photo credit: Andy Potter, via Wikimedia Commons

2. Scot-and-lot boroughs. Whoever paid the scot-and-lot tax in the borough could vote. While the rules varied between boroughs as to who paid the tax, this was essentially an income threshold, since municipal taxes were assigned on the basis of income and poor people didn't pay them.

3. Freeman boroughs. Anyone who was a freeman (also called "had the freedom of the city") could vote. These usually meant the largest electorates, since freemen included not only rich folks but generally members of professional/artisanal guilds, shopkeepers, etc.

4. Corporation boroughs. Basically, members of the City Council could vote.

5. Freeholder boroughs. Used the same 40 shilling threshold as the counties. There were only 6 of these.

6. Householder boroughs. Any head of household not receiving poor relief could vote. There were only 12 of these. Wikipedia says: "While the householder boroughs were in theory the most democratic, they were in practice very corrupt, notorious for bribery of voters by candidates and their patrons, frequently with liquor, which made for riotous and expensive elections. At Aylesbury in 1761, the successful candidate simply paid the electors five pounds each for their votes. Sometimes the voters banded together and openly sold the borough to the highest bidder."

And here's the thing:

When the vote was based on a property qualification, women who owned qualifying property had an interest in the resulting vote!

It's not known (yet) if women ever voted directly, but Chalus writes: "Derek Hirst's work on the seventeeth century has revealed instances of women who believed that they had the right to vote in parliamentary elections, of candidates who tried to poll them, and of election officials who were ready to accept their votes. These practices appear to have fallen out of favor in the eighteenth century[....]"

Here's some of what we do know:

1. Husbands consistently voted "in right of" their wives when their wives owned property that qualified for the 40s. freehold in county elections. In the event of a separation, he could lose the ability to do so. There are known cases of women who were not married appointing various male family members to vote on their property. (Sometimes, these votes were challenged. A lot of our evidence about unreformed electoral practices comes from parliamentary hearings on contested votes, though, so that might be reporting bias.)

2. Women who owned a burgage were allowed to vote indirectly on those burgages through a male representative. It seems that married women who owned burgages automatically passed the right to vote on those burgages to their husband and couldn't get it back, BUT unmarried women and widows could appoint whoever they wanted (so long as the man in question met local requirements), and could change the designation at will.

3. Very rich women who wanted to control a seat in Parliament bought up burgages just like men did, and installed like-minded tenants to vote on them just as men did.

4. It seems that there was a widespread cultural assumption that a woman who had brought her husband the vote retained some interest in that vote, and had the right to a say, maybe even the final say, in how it was used. This is nebulous and hard to pin down, but look at this sentence from a 1754 address to "the Free-women of Bristol": in speaking to the candidate, they are to "Make This [the repeal of a by-law disallowing Bristol freemen's daughters not resident in the city from making their husbands voters, see 5, below], one Condition of your Husbands Votes and Interest."

(Of course, when votes were so rare that they were essentially a form of property, and were also a source of income, they were frequently considered as held in common by a family, who made that decision the same way and with the same power dynamics as they made all their other decisions. So voters' wives, mothers, and daughters were always an important political constituency.)

5. This one is the most important for my book, since Phoebe's town Lively St. Lemeston is a freeman borough. There are several ways to become a freeman of a borough: by purchase (expensive), by completing an apprenticeship in a recognized guild, or by inheritance (if your father was a freeman) or marriage.  Rules varied. In some places marrying the daughter or widow of a freeman could get a man the freedom. In some places, men only retained the freedom in their wives' lifetime.

Here's what Chalus says about county elections (and I see no reason to think it wouldn't apply to freeman boroughs): "In close election contests, marriages might even be encouraged and expedited by patrons, candidates or agents in order to increase the number of their voters. Two days before the poll was due to open for the Oxfordshire election of 1754, Lady Susan Keck sent a couple to Oxford. [She told] the New Interest's agent in Oxford[...]: 'I send you my Bridegroom and Bride I desire you will instantly take out a Licence [sic] and Marry them forthwith; you are to pay everything; This makes the Bridegroom a Voter therefore never see my face if they are not married.'"

As you all know I love a good marriage of convenience. I looked at that and I had my plot.

By the rules of Lively St. Lemeston (and Hertford, incidentally), only the eldest daughters of freeman with no sons can make their husbands freemen. It just so happens Phoebe is the only unmarried eldest daughter of a freeman with no sons, and that the election is neck and neck, making her marriage suddenly incredibly politically important...

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01 April 2013

Malcolm and Suzanne's Parisian Affair

Paris is a city for lovers. When Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch move to the British embassy in Paris after the Battle of Waterloo, in my recently released The Paris Affair, one would think they might have time to indulge in a romantic interlude. Napoleon is exiled again, and the mystery Malcolm and Suzanne investigated at the time of Waterloo has been resolved. But as those who have followed Malcolm and Suzanne's adventures know, conventional romance is hardly in their line. Their marriage began as one of convenience, with deception on both sides. Their feelings for each other are deep, but are more likely to be expressed through Shakespeare quotes than their own romantic utterances. Their gazes are more apt to meet in understanding over a mutually discovered clue than on a moonlit balcony (unless that balcony contains a dead body or they have just climbed it to evade pursuit).

Besides, the city to which they have removed is hardly a scene of idyllic tranquility. Waterloo may have ended the major fighting in the Napoleonic Wars, but it was far from bringing an end to the simmering tensions that go back to the French Revolution. The White Terror is in full swing, with the Ultra Royalists, led by Louis XVIII’s brother the Comte d’Artois, seeking vengeance on those who went over to Napoleon during the Hundred Days (and really vengeance for everything since the Revolution). Royalist gangs have attacked Bonapartists in the south. Allied soldiers – British, Prussian, Dutch-Belgian, Bavarian – throng the boulevards and quais of Paris and are encamped in the Bois de Boulogne, leading to frequent tension with the French populace. Royalist émigrés, many of whom fled France two decades ago, have returned seeking to have their estates restored. Two men who have managed to hold on to power since the Revolution, Talleyrand and Fouché, negotiate with the victorious powers - Britain's Wellington and Castlereagh, Austria's Prince Metternich, the unpredictable Tsar Alexander of Russia.

Suzanne's friends, the sisters Dorothée Talleyrand and Wilhelmine of Sagan, are engaged in uneasy love affairs of their own. Dorothée has returned to Paris from Vienna but is living with Priucne Talleyrand, her husband's uncle, rather than with her husband. Handsome Count Karl Clam-Martinitz, who became her lover at the Congress of Vienna, is also in Paris, but Dorothée's husband Edmond is not as sanguine as one would think a man might be who has ignored his wife for most of their marriage. And then Talleyrand's feelings for Dorothée - and hers for him - are decidedly complex. Meanwhile, the twice-divorced Wilhelmine has entered into a love affair with Castlereagh's hot-tempered half-brother, Lord Stewart, and is actually contemplating a third attempt at matrimony.

Suzanne listens to her friends' laments, but the intrigues she is caught up in herself are more political. For Malcolm and her, an evening out is not a moonlit stroll along the Seine or champagne in a candlelit café but a visit in disguise to a dockside tavern. To meet a contact. Naturally. But as Suzanne says, "An evening without diplomatic small talk. Bliss."

I love writing about London, and I've had a lot of fun with Vienna and Brussels in my last two books. But writing about Paris had its own sort of magic. What are your favorite books set in the City of Light? And what other couples can you think of whose expressions of their feelings for each other are decidedly understated?

photo: Raphael Coffey

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