Saturday, September 26, 2015

Class conflict?

Hi, I'm Jo and I write aristocratic historical romance.
Yes, at times it feels as if I should be trying to overcome a habit, and I'm wondering what you feel about this. Is there something wrong about using upper class protagonists in a romance?

A bit of background, because I think it's relevant. I was born and raised in England, then in my late twenties I emigrated with my husband to Canada.

I became a romance novelist in Canada, but sold my books to New York, as that's where the romance publishers were, and America is where the bulk of today's romance readers are. In literary terms, America is my heartland, with Canada second, as aristocratic historical romance is very popular there, too. England is my homeland, but for some reason historical romance in general, and aristocratic historical romance in particular, seems to be a tiny market here.

This puzzles me, as I developed my reading and writing tastes growing up in England, enthusiastically using the public library. The first romance I remember reading was The Scarlet Pimpernel, and then I moved on to the wonderful Georgette Heyer, whose books are full of the nobility, wealth and the "ton." I remember other authors, such as Paula Allardyce and Alice Chetwynd Ley , both almost contemporaries of Heyer. I know there were others back then. Any other names come to mind? 
My first Heyer. The original copy.

So where did this British enjoyment of dashing, high society historicals go? Over to the States, obviously, where they flourished,  but why did they dwindle here? Why did so few British authors follow in the footsteps of Heyer, Allardyce et al? The obvious answer would be that publishers stopped publishing those books because the readers stopped buying them. Did they? If you're old enough, did you?

I can think of some other possible factors.
Alongside the historical romances of the mid 20th century ran the gothic romances. From excellent beginnings such as Rebecca and the novels of Victoria Holt, they became rather formulaic. They were popular, however, in Britain and North America, to the detriment of historical romance. In North America readers tired of them and embraced historical romance, with its much more varied settings, characters and storylines. Did the stranglehold work too well in Britain, leaving readers with a feeling that "historical romance" meant either the sweet Barbara Cartland style, or the gothic, with menacing men, and women with a tendency to go down into blood-soaked basements in their nighties?

Or did something happen in British society to mean that readers simply weren't interested in "toffs" anymore. Why then the popularity of Downton Abbey? It seems to me that most people enjoy some stately home and lords and ladies fantasy fun now and then, but perhaps I'm wrong.

No toffs, please. We're British?

Talking of stately homes, I'm part of a group anthology based on a glittering ball at a stately home in 1815. The characters range from a thief masquerading as a maid to the heir to an earldom, so there's something for everyone.

I'll give a copy of The Last Chance Christmas Ball to one of the commenters on this blog, randomly picked. So, British, American, Canadian or wherever, have your say.


Friday, September 25, 2015

Jane Austen's Emma, Governesses, and a New Book.

Jane Austen’s life was cut tragically short at the age of 41. If you’re a huge fan of her work, like me, then the six completed novels she finished, whilst perfectly demonstrating her genius, will never be enough. I’m always torn when it comes to deciding which is my favourite, and I love them all for different reasons. Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion vie for the top spot, but I also love Emma. This December will mark 200 years of its publication, and it was with this book in mind that I started to think about the present novel I’m working on.
Emma was written as Jane was beginning to be recognised as a talented writer, and whilst she was still not making much money from her writing she knew her work was being well received by critics and the public alike. Emma was her first heroine to be wealthy and privileged; perhaps living not far from her brother Edward’s house at Chawton and seeing first-hand the lives of his daughters, which were in great contrast to her own, gave her some of the inspiration for her writing.
Emma is portrayed as a match-maker and someone who thinks she understands human nature, including her own, and the joy of the book is discovering not only how far the truth is from her real understanding of the people around her, but also seeing her growth and the changes she makes as a character. Before she started writing Jane Austen wrote, ‘I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like …’ But, although there are traits of Emma’s personality that we may not like to start with, in the end we can forgive her mistakes, and it’s her faults that even help to make her likeable.
Chawton House where Jane's brother Edward lived
It's not possible in a short blog post to write everything that could be included about this wonderful book, but essentially Emma is a book about courtship and marriage, and we see how very different the prospects of the main female characters are dependent on their status in life. Emma is rich and she protests at the start of the novel that she doesn’t see the necessity of marriage, though she’s happy to meddle in other people’s relationships imagining that she’s helping to bring them along. She thinks she will be able to elevate the status of her young friend Harriet who is an illegitimate girl living in a nearby school. As the novel progresses we see her view of marriage gradually change. Austen uses charades very cleverly to show Emma’s misguided efforts to bring the wrong people together. When her friend Harriet declares an interest in a poor farmer, Emma can only persuade her to consider the vicar who has better prospects. Mr Elton presents a ‘courtship’ charade when Harriet is visiting which leads Emma to think he is serious in his regard for her friend. When Emma realises she’s been blind to the fact that Mr Elton is actually in love with her we understand that the charade was never meant for Harriet. The many misunderstandings concealed in charades and riddles keep us from guessing what is going to happen. It’s a book that hides its secrets with tremendous skill, and on first reading the revelations come one by one with wonderful surprises in store. A second reading cements all that was first discovered, and is just as revelatory as on the first. Every time I read it I discover something new. I don’t want to give anything away, but if you don’t know the book I promise you won’t be disappointed with all the twists and turns of the plot.
Olivia Williams as Jane Fairfax
Jane Fairfax is another character I want to mention. She is the only young woman that Emma envies, yet she is poor and is set to become a governess. Emma doesn’t like Jane Fairfax, but Jane Austen writes of her in glowing terms. Jane has all the traits and accomplishments that Emma feels she is lacking in herself. She is clever, beautiful, and is a talented singer and pianist. Jane Austen writes her character sympathetically, and I can’t help wondering if she ever worried that the fate of becoming a governess might befall her. As she comes to her own self-realisation, Emma thinks about the inequalities between women of independent means and those who are poor. The contrast between Mrs. Churchill’s importance in the world, and Jane Fairfax’s, struck her; one was every thing, the other nothing. 
Austen compares the lot of the governess to a form of slavery and we know she witnessed the life at first-hand. Her dear friend, Anne Sharp served as governess to Fanny Knight, Jane’s niece at Edward’s other house, Godmersham Park, Kent, from 1804-6. Jane sent a presentation copy of the three volume edition of Emma inscribed to her friend when they were published, and I can't help thinking that in some ways Emma is partly a tribute to the woman whom Jane revered. They remained good friends until Jane died.

At the end of Jane Austen’s life she wrote a poem called Winchester Races. Jane knew she was dying and though the poem is a reference to St. Swithin I’ve always been intrigued by these lines:

When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal!

I can’t help wishing that even though she achieved immortality in her writing, that she could have found a way to be cured so she could write all the books she wished. And that’s what set me thinking about Emma, governesses, and a new book which will be published in November, Jane Austen Lives Again. Although Emma started as the inspiration for this book, I soon found other nods to Jane's novels creeping in - you'll find Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice all making their influence known.

© Jane Austen Lives Again
When Jane Austen’s doctor discovers the secret to immortal life in 1817 she thinks her wishes have come true. But when Jane wakes up from the dead, she hasn’t reckoned on her doctor being a descendant of the original Dr Lyford or that it’s taken over a 100 years to perfect the process. Finding herself in 1925, a penniless Miss Austen must adjust to the Jazz Age, get herself a job, and discover the only one suitable is in the most dreaded of all occupations. Becoming a governess to five girls of an eccentric bohemian family at the neglected and crumbling Manberley Castle is not exactly her dream job, and Jane soon finds she’s caught up in the dramas of every family member. The children are not quite what she’s expected, and her employer, Lady Milton is at her wit’s end.  But Jane loves nothing more than a challenge, and now living in a new body half her real age, but with all the wisdom gained from a lifetime in the past, she resolves on putting the family in order. If only she can resist falling in love, her common sense and resolve will win the day and change the lives of them all!

Jane Odiwe 

Friday, September 18, 2015

How to Make Sense of Sensibility

by Monica Fairview

Funny how some terms become so slippery you can’t really grab hold of them. For us, sensibility immediately brings to mind the word “sensible,” which in fact doesn’t make any sense in the context of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, where the two obviously mean different things.

Have I got everybody sufficiently muddled? Just wait and see.

Here’s an explanation of what the word sensibility actually meant in Austen’s time taken from Wikipedia (what would we do without it?).

Sensibility refers to an acute perception of or responsiveness toward something, such as the emotions of another. This concept emerged in eighteenth-century Britain, and was closely associated with studies of sense perception as the means through which knowledge is gathered. It also became associated with sentimental moral philosophy… George Cheyne and other medical writers wrote of "The English Malady," also called "hysteria" in women or "hypochondria" in men, a condition with symptoms that closely resemble the modern diagnosis of clinical depression. Cheyne considered this malady to be the result of over-taxed nerves. At the same time, theorists asserted that individuals who had ultra-sensitive nerves would have keener senses, and thus be more aware of beauty and moral truth. Thus, while it was considered a physical and/or emotional fragility, sensibility was also widely perceived as a virtue.

Now, what do you make of that? Nothing like our own idea of being “sensible”, though perhaps the word “sensitive” might convey some of the meaning.

Why would I go into such detail about a single word? Because I think Jane Austen spent a lot of time trying to work out which quality is more desirable in her heroines – sense or sensibility? Clearly in the book of that title, she comes down heavily on the side of sense, with Elinor representing that quality and criticizing quite harshly the excessive sensibility of Marianne. Though ultimately, as readers we do tend to sympathize with Marianne. In other words, logically, we side with Sense, but emotionally we side with sensitivity.

In her other novels, the verdict isn’t quite so clear. The concepts are still at war, but JA presents things differently. In Pride and Prejudice Jane’s relationship with Bingley seems to represent sensibility more (particularly in the way she pines away), as does Elizabeth’s tossing aside a practical marriage with Collins because, as she claims, she’ll only marry for love. The one who uses the most sense is Charlotte, but the novel never quite accepts that common-sense approach. Mrs. Bennet, on the other hand, is a perfect example of “ultra-sensitive nerves,” but far from presenting this as a virtue, JA makes it the target of her satire. 

In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Moorland clearly manifests some aspects of sensibility, again parodied by JA, yet her intuitive feeling of something wrong at the Abbey does make sense, given the behavior of General Tilney.  

Persuasion is a tricky one. The extreme side of sensibility is represented by Mary, and it almost seems that the practical Anne is the opposite. But Anne is also the most sensitive of her family, the abler to understand nuances of behavior and the most emotional of them all. Since the novel is largely about choosing love over the “persuasions” of others, JA here clearly gives love the upper hand over rationality and social considerations.

As for Mansfield Park, it swings back in the direction of reason. Fanny is the reasonable one while everyone around her seems to be guided by their instincts. Even Edward succumbs to the irrational when temptation is thrown his way.

Emma, in some way, is a search for order and the rational in a world where everything seems chaotic. Emma sees herself as the sensible one capable of organizing everyone else’s happiness, but, like the trip to Box Hill, everything quickly becomes chaotic. I love the way riddles and puzzles play with this idea all the way through.

I’m the first to admit that I’m quickly developing a headache as I try to work myself through this. By the end, I’m not sure where I started. Is Jane Austen an advocate of sense or of sensibility? 

What do you think?

Monica Fairview is the bestselling author of Austen Sequels: The Other Mr. Darcy, The Darcy Cousins, and Austen Variations: Mr. Darcy’s Pledge, Mr. Darcy’s Challenge and The Darcy Brothers and the Neo-Victorian futuristic Steampunk Darcy as well as a Regency romance An Improper Suitor now in Regency Quintet: Summer Edition. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Cutty Sark Figureheads Collection: could this be Mr Darcy?

Recently, I visited the famous Cutty Sark tea clipper – something I’d been longing to do for years – where I came across the fascinating Sydney Cumbers Collection of ships’ figureheads. Mr Cumbers, born in 1870, was an avid collector of maritime artefacts dating from the 19th century which he donated to the Cutty Sark in the 1930s. Most of the figureheads (from merchant ships) bear their ship’s names but there are a few where the provenance is unknown, including the first one which caught my eye.

Could this be Mr Darcy?

My first thought was: it’s Mr Darcy! The hair, with the long sideburns, dates from about 1813, as does the cravat. It’s the right date, and, of course, he just looks right.


The selection of figureheads is interesting, and indicates a as a wide general knowledge on the part of those who named the ships. Some of the figureheads are from literature, like Hiawatha, dating it to around 1855 when Longfellow’s narrative poem on the American Indian hero was published and became a hit.


This is an unnamed classical female figure, who I think must be the Roman goddess Diana – she has a crescent moon in her hair which is one of Diana’s attributes.


There is also a figurehead labelled Zenobia, a powerful and ambitious woman who became Queen of Palmyra in 267 AD. Whoever named his ship after her was obviously a lover of the Classics.

Sir Lancelot (left) and Omar Pasha (right)

There are figureheads of literary heroes closer to home, too. Sir Lancelot, in his silver armour, somehow manages to look simultaneously both Medieval and Victorian. He, too, has a literary provenance: Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, a series of narrative poems telling the story of King Arthur, was immensely popular in the 1850s. Lancelot, who had sworn fealty to King Arthur, had an adulterous affair with Guinevere, King Arthur’s wife. Tennyson sums him up, unforgettably:

His honour rooted in dishonour stood,
And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true.

Next to Sir Lancelot is the dashing Omar Pasha (1806-71). He was born a Serbian Christian but converted to Islam and became famous as an Ottoman general, winning several spectacular victories over the Russians during the Crimean War. The Turks were British allies during the war and Omar Pasha was much admired.

Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882)

Other foreign heroes are represented, too, for example the politician and fighter for Italian Unification, Giuseppe Garibaldi – another fine figure of a man.

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)

Female contemporary heroines are not forgotten with Florence Nightingale, ‘the lady with the lamp’; a figurehead which, in my opinion, doesn’t do her justice.


The beautiful Duchesse is one of my favourites. Who was she? French, obviously, but who? I thought that she might represent a French royal mistresses, Madame de Pompadour, for example. But Madame de Pompadour was a marquise, not a duchesse; the figure doesn’t look like her, and her hair isn’t powdered, as la Pompadour’s hair would have been.

But, back to Mr Darcy. Alas, I doubt whether it is him; the figureheads of literary heroes are men of action, like Hiawatha. Could it be Lord Byron? He was certainly well-known (or notorious) enough and famous for his good looks as well as his poetry.

Any suggestions?

Elizabeth Hawksley

Photos by Elizabeth Hawksley

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Visit a castle!

We can't all easily visit historic buildings, but the modern world is making it easier to explore in a virtual way. Check out this recreation in 3-D of ruined Holt Castle. It gave me a new feeling of what it would be like to visit it. Click here.

There's information here about a medieval castle in the building that you can actually visit.

Do you enjoy medieval fiction?

You can check out my medieval romances here. 

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Best wishes,