Thursday, August 30, 2018

You read trashy romances? What’s wrong with you?

As a romance writer, you rapidly get used to being put down rather than praised by the general public. Romance readers, knowing this tendency to be called out for their reading tastes, used to be known for hiding their romance paperback inside another “literary” novel, or wrapped in brown paper. If you talked about it, you said it was a guilty pleasure.

Thankfully, the rise of kindle changed all that. Nobody knows what you’re reading in that electronic contraption. I’m convinced the huge boost to romance since the advent of ebooks is down to that – at least to some extent. You can read whatever you like and no one is going to diss you for it.

But the idea that romance is easy to write (and therefore not worth anything) because it’s light entertainment and (often) trash, persists to this day. Yet romantic films abound, love songs roll down the years, and reality shows about love and marriage keep on coming. But pen a romance and you’re for it.

It's nothing new. Romance has been under fire ever since the 18th century when such novels (including the gothic) were trashed as systematically as they are in our time, and were thought to be injurious to the feminine mind, filling it with false expectations and foolish dreams. What's wrong with dreaming, say I. And millions of women agree.

It is getting better these days, since so many romance writers have become huge best-selling authors due to the ebook indie publisher revolution. But the stigma is still there and a romance writer develops a thick skin. When I was writing for Mills & Boon, my fellow writers and I could expect nothing but scorn and derision from the literati, especially literary journalists.  A diet of catcalls and rubbishing epithets has led the general public to regard Mills & Boon as junk food for the sexually deprived.

A typical conversation would go something like this:

Interested party:  Oh, you’re a writer. Are you published?
Me, bracing for it:  Yes.
More interested:  Really?  What do you write?  Have I read any?
Me [thinks: How the heck should I know?] (politely through false smile):  I write for Mills & Boon.
Party's expression changes to blank:  Oh.  (pause while suppressing laughter)  My mother used to read those.
Me (gritting teeth):  Really?
Party (no longer interested):  Oh, yes.  I tried to read one once, but it’s not my thing really.  All that panting and deep looks stuff.
Me:  Well, I write historicals, actually.
Party (openly grinning):  You don’t!  What, those bodice ripper things.  (laughing like a hyena)

At this point, if the party is a man, he will say with a leering look:
“Do you do your own research?”  (nudge, nudge, wink, wink)

And that’s about the level of respect. Thank you. Much obliged. Is it any wonder romance writers are reticent about saying what they do, except to other writers in the genre?

Actually, that’s not entirely true.  People are usually impressed you’ve had a book published at all, and once you’ve got a longish backlist you can crush even the most hardened critic with numbers. That usually shuts them up. There is also some evidence that not all journalists consider us a legitimate target for jeering brickbats. A few articles dealing more fairly with the genre have been seen these last few years, so there is hope for us yet.

Meanwhile, I am finding my shift into Regency mystery, even though laced with heavy doses of romance, is a step on the road to respectability. Apparently, if you write detective fiction, you are allowed to be considered a "proper" writer!

Elizabeth Bailey

When Emily Fanshawe, Marchioness of Polbrook, is found strangled in her bedchamber, suspicion immediately falls on those residing in the grand house in Hanover Square. Emily’s husband - Randal Fanshawe, Lord Polbrook - fled in the night and is chief suspect – much to the dismay of his family.

Ottilia Draycott is brought in as the new lady’s companion to Sybilla, Dowager Marchioness and soon finds herself assisting younger son, Lord Francis Fanshawe in his investigations.

Can Ottilia help clear the family name? Does the killer still reside in the house? Or could there be more to the mystery than meets the eye…?

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Arranging the family album

Today we have hundreds of photographs in files on our computers, or shiny pieces of pasteboard shut away in a cupboard. We select and filter them when we choose the ones to put in our albums, digital or physical.
Since Victorian times people have collected photographs of themselves and others. Now we have photo filters and Photoshop to alter the pictures, to make ourselves beautiful, or to look like a cat.
Back then, they had portraits. During the early sixteenth century the Long Gallery became popular.
A long room made for exercise or physical pursuits when the weather didn't allow it. At least, that's what they said. But it also displayed family portraits.
My favourite isn't one of the magnificent examples in great houses like Hardwick, wonderful though they are, it's the one at Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire. That house was built for a wealthy farmer, a squire, not a member of the aristocracy, and as the family grew wealthier, they built on to the original structure. The Long Gallery was the last of these, plonked on to the top, made of green wood that warped and twisted, so walking along it is like walking on the deck of a ship at sea. It also made three rooms redundant, as only the top half was available. So they panelled it off and those rooms became "secret rooms."
So they are the rooms where Isobel hides Nick in "Danger In White" when she thinks he's a Jacobite spy. I had the seeds of that plot on my computer for years before I found a book where I could use it. 
The portraits were as manipulated as our Photoshopped photos, and seen through the eyes of a painter. After Classical painting, portraits were considered high in the heirarchy of painting, higher than landscapes. They were also a painter's bread and butter.
The great painters would often only do the vital parts of a work, usually the head and hands, but if the sitter was important, like Charles I to Van Dyck, then the painter would do everything. He would train students and some of his studio would have specialities they would use - the ability to paint trees or drapery. Van Dyck himself was a wonderful painter of fabric. In the eighteenth century Gainsborough and Reynolds led the pack, and during the Regency the glamorous paintings of Lawrence became all the rage.
Most sitters wanted a likeness, but they wanted a flattering likeness. Some, like Oliver Cromwell, demanded they be shown "warts and all," but most wanted to be seen at their best. There were no happy snaps back then! Charles II had his mistresses painted by Sir Peter Lely, most of them half naked, or with silk and satin robes falling artfully from their shoulders.
Reynolds and Gainsborough made the eighteenth century movers and shakers elegant and proud. Many were painted in fancy dress, so the portraits would be less likely to go out of date quickly. The clothes they wore were their best ones. Rarely are there portraits of people in everyday wear, so these are treasures. Genre paintings like the ones by Chardin show everyday wear, and cartoons, engravings and sketches give a better idea. But you had your portrait taken in your best, or if you didn't have a best, in a borrowed outfit, or one hired from the painter.
The best artists showed people, so you feel that you could talk to them and hear their reply. You can sense their characters.
Even though they are all staring down at you from the walls of the Long Gallery.

Danger In White is on offer this month for 99 cents/99 pence. All the buy links are on this page, with an excerpt link

Friday, August 10, 2018

Singles or Doubles? Melinda Hammond Ponders Romance Covers...

With the release of our latest Regency Romantics Box set, A Summer of Dukes, I have been thinking about covers recently and wondering just what readers – and authors – prefer. Perhaps a single gentleman on the cover is favourite, our "Duke" certainly seems perfectly at home in the picture above, doesn't he?  And the cover of The Ton's Most Notorious Rake, my current Sarah Mallory Regency, has a very handsome hunk gracing the cover.  
Yet the recent Italian version of the same book features a painting of an actual scene from the book and I find I quite like that, too, or perhaps it is just the author in me kicking in, because I like to think that someone has read the book!

And I have now received foreign copies of two of my Sarah Mallory books from the Scandalous Arrandales Series – Lithuania, in fact! – plus The Duke's Secret Heir in German, and they ALL have couples on the covers.

To balance this, several of my own Georgian or Regency Romances have pictures of the heroine on the cover, including these two:-

 So, do you prefer to see a couple on a romance cover, or a single man or woman? Or perhaps it depends on the title  or the story? I confess that I don't think I have a preference,  but I am always intrigued to know what my publishers will choose next!

Do let me know what you think.

Happy reading
Melinda Hammond /Sarah Mallory

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Jane Austen: Mr Bennet's Failure as a Father

In every film or television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice I’ve seen (and I’ve seen many)   Mr Bennet comes across as a sympathetic character; a man we could like. We enjoy his irony with regard to the oleaginous Mr Collins: ‘It is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?’  

He finds Mr Collins ‘as absurd as he had hoped; and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance…’ And we laugh with him.

But there is a less admirable side to Mr Bennet, one which leads to a great deal of unhappiness for his elder daughters, Jane and Elizabeth, and near disaster for the flighty Lydia who runs off with the caddish (though handsome) Wickham.

19th Century Reticule

At the end of Chapter 1, Jane Austen sums up Mr Bennet’s character. He was an ‘odd mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve and caprice...’ He enjoys winding people up. He allows his wife to think that he has no intention of paying that essential courtesy call on the newly-arrived Mr Bingley, a young, unmarried man with £5000 a year, without which Mrs Bennet will not be able to introduce her attractive daughters to him. He leaves her in ignorance until he’s extracted the maximum enjoyment from her agitation before telling her that he has paid the call.

He can be unkind, too. At the Netherfield ball, his middle daughter Mary eagerly sits down at the piano and begins to sing. ‘Mary’s powers were by no means fitted for such a display; her voice was weak and her manner affected.’  Elizabeth is in agonies of embarrassment and ‘looks at her father to entreat his interference.’  


Mr Bennet telling his wife and daughters that he has called on Mr Bingley by Charles E. Brock

He picks up her hint and says, after Mary’s second song,‘That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough. Let other young ladies have time to exhibit.’  Elizabeth must have heard the irony in his tone for she felt ‘sorry for (Mary), and sorry for her father’s speech.’ He could have done it more kindly.

But Mr Bennet is not a particularly kind man. When Mr Bingley suddenly leaves Netherfield without having made the expected offer to Jane – and it’s obvious to Elizabeth that Jane and Bingley are very much in love – Jane is deeply upset, and Elizabeth and Mrs Bennet are full of sympathy.

Mr Bennet’s reaction is quite different. He says to Elizabeth: ‘So, Lizzy, your sister is crossed in love, I find. I congratulate her. Next to being married, a girl likes to be crossed in love a little now and then. It is something to think of and gives her a sort of distinction among her companions.’ He suggests that Elizabeth will not want to be outdone by Jane, and recommends Wickham for the role: ‘He is a pleasant fellow, and would jilt you creditably.’

It is callous, inappropriate, and he completely ignores Jane’s very real distress.

Regency man

The tone of Elizabeth’s response is interesting: ‘Thank you, sir, but a less agreeable man would satisfy me. We must not all expect Jane’s good fortune.’ On the surface, it sounds as though she is content to echo her father’s irony, but I wonder? She doesn’t call her father ‘Papa’ she calls him ‘sir’, as if distancing herself, a reaction further emphasized by her use of ‘We’ rather than ‘I’. The reader suspects that Elizabeth is hurt by her father’s reaction and that this conversation will not be passed on to Jane.  
Mr Bennet in his Library about to be harangued by Mrs Bennet on Elizabeth's obstinate refusal to accept Mr Collins' proposal, by Charles E. Brock

Then there’s the question of the Bennet girls’ education. When Lady Catherine de Bourgh cross-questions Elizabeth about her and her sisters’ education, she discovers that they grew up without a governess; and that, although Elizabeth and Mary are both musical, they never went up to London to be properly taught.

‘My mother would have had no objection, but my father hates London,’ Elizabeth tells her.

Lady Catherine might be nosy but she asks questions to which the readers, too, would like answers. ‘Why did you not all learn? You ought all to have learnt. The Miss Webbs all play, and their father has not so good an income as yours.’

Later she says: ‘No governess? How was that possible? Your mother must have been quite a slave to your education.’


These are pertinent questions; and surely it is Mr Bennet’s duty as a parent to see that his daughters have a decent education, especially considering that they might have to work for a living if they don’t find husbands. We also learn from Lady Catherine that Mr Bennet’s income could well support proper music teachers.

Of course, the reader knows that it is extremely unlikely that Mrs Bennet would have taught her daughters. So how were they educated? Possibly they went to a girls’ school in Meriton, to an establishment like Mrs Goddard’s school in Highbury in Emma, where ‘a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price.’

The Bennet girls can all read and write and are numerate. They would have been taught to sew (Lydia pulls apart a newly-bought hat prior to redesigning it) and they had obviously had dancing lessons – they are all good dancers. We know that Mary and Elizabeth were taught the piano by somebody (even if not a London professional) and they had singing lessons.

Two Girls at School, 1817

The sisters would have learnt a modicum of British History, even if only through Miss Mangnall’s Historical and Miscellaneous Questions for the Use of Young People (1798). They know various card games. Jane, at least, can ride.  

As Elizabeth says, ‘We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle certainly might.’ It is not very satisfactory.

In my view, Mr Bennet should have seen to it that none of his daughters were allowed to be idle. And he certainly failed Mary.

Mary isn’t pretty like her sisters; instead, she tries to be ‘accomplished’. But, although she is obviously intelligent, Mr Bennet doesn’t bother to teach her to think clearly. Her trite observations are allowed to stand and, doubtless, give her father some amusement, but that is, surely, not enough. He could have helped her – he is a thinking man - but he can’t be bothered.

Furthermore, a man of breeding should treat his wife with respect – even if they have very little in common. To do otherwise sets a bad example to their children. Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park, for example, always treats Lady Bertram courteously, even though she does very little apart from lying on her sofa and petting her dog, Pug. The Bertram children are expected to treat their mother with the respect which is her due. 
Mr Bennet's reaction on hearing that Lydia has eloped with Mr Wickham 

Mr Bennet also allows himself to criticize his wife in front of his children. He says of Charlotte Lucas’s engagement to Mr Collins: ‘It gratified him … to discover that Charlotte Lucas, whom he had been used to think tolerably sensible, was as foolish as his wife and more foolish than his daughter!’ And he obviously enjoys Mrs Bennet’s distress about the Lucas-Collins match – and we sympathize – after all, the Netherfield estate is entailed and it is Mr Collins who will inherit it when Mr Bennet dies not Mrs Bennet and her daughters. They will be homeless.

It is not Mr Bennet’s fault that he only has daughters, but it is his responsibility to see that his wife and children are properly provided for after his death. We are told, towards the end of the book, that he had ‘often wished that, instead of spending his whole income, he had laid by an annual sum, for the better provision of his children, and of his wife, if she should survive him.’ It was his duty to have done so, as he eventually recognizes.  

His income is £2000 a year. If he’d saved 10% - surely not too difficult – it would have meant that the marriage settlement of £5000 would now be worth well over £9000. Luckily for Mr Bennet, Mr Darcy’s generosity enables Lydia to marry Wickham, and Mr Bennet himself ‘would be scarcely ten pounds a year the loser.’

Reading Lady 

And it is Mr Bennet’s refusal to listen to Elizabeth’s advice to forbid Lydia to accept Mrs Forster’s invitation to go to Brighton, which precipitates the final catastrophe of Lydia running off with Wickham. Elizabeth’s plea is heartfelt: she points out that she and her sisters’ social acceptance and ‘respectability in the world must be affected by the wild volatility and disdain of all constraint which mark Lydia’s character.’ And she sees Kitty, who follows her sister, being drawn in, too. ‘Vain, ignorant, idle, and absolutely uncontrolled! Oh my dear father, can you suppose it possible that they will not be censured and despised wherever they are known, and that their sisters will not be often involved in their disgrace?’

He listens, and he has an answer to her points which satisfies him and he gives Lydia permission to go to Brighton. When push comes to shove, he always goes for the option which will cost him the least trouble.

Jane Austen, after Cassandra Austen. National Portrait Gallery.

At the end of the book, Mr Bennet has married off three of his five daughters, so money will be less tight. He could, if he so chose, start saving for Kitty, Mary and his wife’s futures. But he doesn’t, ‘he naturally returned to all his former indolence.’  Perhaps he assumes (probably correctly) that his two rich sons-in-law will make sure that his wife and unmarried daughters will be comfortable, financially.  It is not an admirable trait.

There are other fathers in Jane Austen’s novels whose characters may be worthy of censure: General Tilney’s bullying, for example, or Sir Walter Elliot’s snobbery and financial fecklessness, but it is Mr Bennet’s disengagement from his daughters’ upbringing which makes him the most blameworthy, in my opinion.  

Elizabeth Hawksley