Monday, 30 August 2010

Romanticisation and the Romance

Whilst hunting around on the web, I stumbled across this fascinating article by Susan S. Davis.

The article explores the implications of the findings of two studies (by the University of Texas and the State University of New York at Buffalo), which indicate that romanticisation is key to the long term success of a relationship. Successful couples are more likely to ignore each other's flaws and amplify their virtues, and their attitude actually seems to help shape the relationship to become the very relationship they had wished for.

However, the more interesting (to my mind) point that the article makes is this:

According to many psychologists, a high level of self-esteem garners a greater tolerance of vulnerability, i.e., the ability to stay open to the feelings of a partner, rather than shut down and withdraw emotionally, even during times of difficulty. While disclosing very private areas can expose one to exploitation, hurt, or rejection, it can also serve to enhance and enrich relationships

I was struck by the relevance of these human truths to characterisation and plot development in romance novels. In the romance genre, both types of couple exist. There are those that view their other half as perfection, which creates the opportunity for their beloved to live up to the ideal. In the books of Georgette Heyer, examples of this include Avon and Leonie (These Old Shades), Kitten and Sherry (Friday's Child) and Babs and Charles (An Infamous Army).

But the real tension exists where one character has to make themselves vulnerable, to risk themselves in order to attain the holy grail (true love). A great recent example of this can be found in Jo Beverley's Devilish where the omniscient Rothgar has to make himself vulnerable and to permit risk in his life in order to be united with Diana.

Sometimes, these attitudes to love coincide: in An Infamous Army, Charles idealises Babs and she must overcome her fear of commitment and of being trapped. Despite the backdrop of the Battle of Waterloo, it is Babs' inner turmoil which creates the true drama in the novel. Charles' family background as a cherished son and brother means that love holds no fear for him. He is happy to risk himself and his heart. For Babs, sold into marriage and related to fiery tempered, cruel and avaricious Alastairs (of which she is one) love has quite a different complexion: it is a source of terror. Despite her willingness to brave war for her beloved, it is her eventual commitment to love which truly demonstrates her courage and attachment.

The universality of these themes is surely one of the reasons the romance genre endures. There is something in there that we can all recognise and empathise with - and if there isn't, there should be!

Friday, 20 August 2010

Men seldom make passes...

... at girls who wear glasses. So wrote Dorothy Parker in 1926.

A scene popped into my head the other day from the Ardent Spirits story, which is stubbornly refusing to be entirely put on the backburner whilst I focus on my paranormal romance (now nominally called Blood Ties, an improvement on Spies by Night). In the scene my heroine, a woman of science, dons a pair of pince-nez in an effort to look completely serious and scientific.

This is the kind of detail that I can waste a lot of time on.

Pince-Nez. Did people in the early 19th century actually wear them? If so, who and when? Were they expensive or readily available?

Okay, so a story isn't going to be made or broken on the strength of its eyewear but I like to find these things out. I find details like this interesting and sometimes, my research into them takes me on a journey which leads to quirky plot ideas or a random bit of character development.

Anyway, back to pince-nez. My heroine is standing in a cold, damp library waiting for an interview with a potential client. She's a scientist, but she is also a woman and in Regency England her credibility is therefore, sadly, lower than a man's. She needs a bit of confidence and for Ernestina, that manifests itself in assertive body language and the donning of a pair of pince-nez.

Except it can't - because pinze-nez weren't invented until the 1840s.

(Phew, lucky I checked).

Lorgnettes on the other hand were quite the thing. According to Richard D. Drewry, Jr., M.D:

The [lorgenette's] frame and handle were frequently artistically embellished, since they were used mostly by women and more often as a piece of jewelry than as a visual aid. The lorgnette maintained its popularity with ladies of fashion, who would not wear spectacles. The lorgnette was still popular at the end of the 19th century.

Lorgnettes were even invented in England, by George Adams. The only problem is that my Ernestina just isn't a lorgnette kind of girl. Call me prejudiced but to me, lorgnette says fashion-conscious purple-haired dowager - especially if it's embellished.

So what other options were available? Well, quite a variety actually. Silver spectacles with sliding arms (a french invention, worn by Benjamin Franklin), bifocals (invented by Franklin - clearly a champion of the myopic), monocles and magnifying glasses.

On reflection, I think Ernestina might be the gold-rimmed spectacles type - and unlike many women of fashion, proud of the look. Whether she is the recipient of any passes, remains to be seen!

My top five facts (in no particular order) about eyewear courtesy of Richard D. Drewry, Jr., M.D.:

1. The Roman tragedian Seneca (born c.4 BC), is alleged to have read "all the books in Rome" by peering at them through a glass globe of water to produce magnification.

2. The first spectacles were made between 1268 and 1289, though the name of the true inventor of eyeglasses remains lost in obscurity.

3. The first known artistic representation of eyeglasses was painted by Tommaso da Modena in 1352.

4. Benjamin Franklin in the 1780's developed the bifocal - as well as helping to found the USA, of course.

5. Nero used an emerald held up to his eye while he watched gladiators fight. This might not have been for use as a lens to see better, but as a filter against the sunlight. That's an expensive pair of Ray-Bans, Caesar.

For further reading on the history of eyewear, please visit the wonderfully detailed Teagle Optometry website.

Images are from Marinni's website here, which unfortunately I am unable to translate but which looks fantastic.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

The Benefits of Dirty Linen

I was just reading Denny S Bryce's comment on this Edittorrent post and it got me thinking about heroes and heroines who stand out to me, and why.

There are tons of Georgette Heyer books that I love whose heroes are very far from being bad lads (Cotillion, sigh), but the characters who sprang to mind after reading Alicia and Denny's post were the devilish Alastairs, who are so bad they are utterly magical. Heyer must have liked them too: she wrote three novels about them (or four, if The Black Moth is included). I was reminded of the Alastairs when reading this comment from Denny:

Constructing good from evil and debating where one leaves off and the other begins was masterful (IMHO). My favorite episode, Amends, Season 3 BtVS, tackles this head on. Whedon even made the remark that the episode included his 'best'/favorite line he ever wrote. "It's not the demon in me that needs killing, Buffy. It's the man."

Denny (and Alicia) was discussing the use of juxtaposition and contrast in drama, but it sparked a thought in my head about the most interesting tension and characterisation being where the shades of grey lie - where characters have dubious motivation, or struggle with their demons. Throughout the Alastair novels, Avon remains a satanic figure but also (it transpires) a person capable of self sacrifice and goodness - solely where his beloved is concerned. There isn't a dramatic reformation. He doesn't see the error of his ways. He remains inpenetrable, opaque and ominiscient. In Devil's Cub, the sequel to These Old Shades he isn't best mates with his son Dominic - there are no big cuddles, or tears of pride. He is respected, distant and even feared.

Heyer resists wrapping everything up in clean linen or tying up all the loose ends in a neat and tidy manner. I think that is why the Alastair novels remain so exciting and so tense, even into their third generation (Babs Childe in An Infamous Army).

That, for me, is the key reason that the Alastair family series succeeds where series by other authors who have followed in Heyer's wake don't. Naming no names, lots of series fall into the reforming-to-the-point-of-blandness trap. The problem is, by the time the whole family are married off, we're introduced to the full clan and living happily ever after with tons of beautiful children, oodles of money and daily multiple orgasms. It's like being thrown into a room full of smug marrieds. It's like the episodes of Superman after Clark and Lois got together. It's just... gone.

The overall impact is dilution. You know, before you even pick up another novel in a series like that, not only the ending (knowing that there will be a happy ending is one of the joys of romance novels, right?) - but everything about what the future holds for this particular couple. Where's the drama in that? Conflict, obstacle and resolution are exciting. Smug marrieds are not.

So I suppose here's the plea... don't lose the shades of grey, they are what make your characters - and their relationships - vibrant and exciting.


Pertinent to this topic is this post on the fabulous and funny Smart Bitches Trashy Novels blog. An article every author should read!

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Romance Blog of the Week

I can't resist highlighing this fantastic post by Cara Elliot/Andrea Pickens on the inspiration Hope Tarr's behind My Lord Jack.

I love writing blogs which talk about the way ideas germinate and I'm fascinated by social history. Cara and Hope's post about the hangmen who inspired My Lord Jack is a fantastic read and highly informative, embracing the science and the superstition surrounding historic Britain's favourite public spectacle.

Here's an extract:

Neck-breaking is a science, and the best executioners such as my Jack Campbell viewed themselves as craftsmen, not torturers. As such, they took great pains and pride in bringing about the optimal “drop.” That entailed calibrating not only the victim’s weight and height but also his or her body mass. A heavy body requires a shorter drop than a light one. A former form absorbs shock and drops differently than one that’s more…squishy.

Who knew?

I love the fact that Hope's hero is a hangman - it breaks the mould just a tad.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010


It's rare that I pick up a book in an airport that sets me on fire, but Wedlock: How Georgian Britains' Worst Husband Met His Match by Wendy Moore did just that.

Wedlock is the sort of cake you would bake if your ingredients included Heat Magazine, a top notch thriller and Kerry Katona's autobiography. It's a riotous read, with taut suspense and larger than life characters engaging in the type of 'truth is stranger than fiction' behaviour which would be considered implausible if incapsulated in fiction. Mary Eleanor Bowes, the heroine of the tale, is a millionairess, who is pursued for her fortune, tricked into marriage and trapped by the draconian laws which placed her person and her fortune. Her escape from the physical and mental torment of her marriage is nerve-wracking, thrilling and utterly involving.

This book embraces the personal, emotional and pyschological, exploring themes that are sadly still current today, but it also explores the larger framework of law, culture and the role of women. It is tragic, fascinating and inspirational and is great reading for anyone interested in the period and the laws surrounding marriage.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Ardent Spirits - 19th Century Alcoholism

"Of all deviations from the paths of duty, there are none that so forcibly impeach their pretensions to the character of rational beings as the inordinate use of spiritous liquors"

What did a three-bottle a day man do when his drinking got out of control? Did he turn to god? Did he check himself into the regency version of the Priory? Did he die of wet brain and dropsy, or did he recover?

In 1804, Dr Thomas Trotter released the second edition of his Essay, a ground-breaking treatise which for the first time characterised excessive alcohol consumption as medical condition. In the same period, across the pond in the (newly forming) US, Benjamin Rush started talking about alcoholism as an addiction.

One historical note for the Scotiaphiles or people who like a weird coincidence - both these gentlemen had studied in Edinburgh, which at that time was the burning heart of the enlightenment. Rush went on to be a Founding Father of the USA, Trotter became a leading medical reformer in the navy and an ardent critic of the slave trade.

I stumbled across Trotter and Rush when asking myself the questions I listed at the start of this blog. In a period which followed hot on the heels of the 'Gin-Craze' of the 18th century, at a time when being a 'three-bottle' man was seen as a badge of masculinity how was alcoholism managed? Was there any prospect of recovery? Was it viewed as a major problem?

With regard to human behaviour, I'm a big fan of Ecclesiastes "What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun". I get excited about historical parallels with contemporary culture, which is one reason I was intrigued to stumble across Dr Trotter's thesis. His theories, at the time, were ground-breaking and would still be relevant to the current debate about alcohol, social justice and addiction generally. I even found evidence of research as late as 1999, assessing the accuracy some of Dr Trotter's theories about alcoholism.

In the last year, I have read two Georgian/Regency novels which touched upon addiction issues (by Eloisa James' The Taming of the Duke and Jo Beverley's To Rescue a Rogue) and I'm interested in addiction as a theme in historical romance. My exploration of Dr Trotter has left me bubbling with ideas - two embryonic characters a gradually taking shape, a woman of science and bad baron in need of sobriety.

But it is to Benjamin Rush I owe my title.... Ardent Spirits!

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Personality of the month: Teresa Cornelys

My personality of the month Mrs Teresa Cornelys (1723 - 1797) had a tendency to attract epithets. Variously know as "Empress of the Regions of Taste", "Slip-shod Empress of Velvet-Clad Venery," "Folly's Sun", "the Circe of Soho" and "the Eastern Sultana", she was instrumental in transforming the social scene of 18th Century London.

Teresa began her career as a viennese opera singer, actress, courtesan and Casanova's childhood friend and lover. By the age of 35 she living in the Netherlands, a destitute single mother dogged by creditors. Five years later Teresa had reinvented herself as the toast of London - and the highest-earning business-woman in Britain.

Before Ronnie Scott's or Chinawhite's were even a twinkle in a night club owner's eye, people thronged the streets of Soho to clap eyes on the glittering guests at Teresa Cornelys' Carlisle House concerts and masquerades. Riding high at the nexus of fashion, Teresa revolutionised London's night life, filling the dead post-opera hours with glamour, invention and celebrity.

She helped to shape the growing cult of celebrity, managing her own public image through a symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship with the burgeoning glut of newspapers which dominated the later half of the 18th century.

She achieved power and prominence both as a cultural icon and as a business woman without the auspices of a male business partner. In an age when women didn't have the right to vote and were the property of their husbands, Teresa Cornelys managed to be both a single mother and a commercial power.

Teresa had a fatal flaw - an inability to stay out of debt. Throughout her life she changed names, nationalities and protectors to escape the mountains of debt which she left scattered throughout Europe. Despite these tactics, by 1772 she was bankrupt.

In the years to follow Teresa tried to rebuild her success but she was unable to achieve a truly successful comeback and by 1791 Carlisle House had been demolished. Teresa's last ditch attempt to restore her fortunes was to open a tea-room selling asses milk.

It was not a success.

Teresa Cornelys died at the age of 74 imprisoned, steeped in debt and rejected by her family. Her legacy was to shape London's social scene and the pattern of society for the next two hundred years.

I love the parallels between Teresa Cornelys' life and career, and our modern cult of celebrity. The sacrifices she made, the risks she took, the things she did to survive (including leaving her son with her creditors) and the highs and lows of her fame and fortune read like a tabloid fantasy: Katie Price eat your heart out.

Love her or loathe her, Teresa is a fantastic inspiration for romantic heroines to come.

I'm indebted to Judith Summers's pacy biography for her whistlestop tour of Soho's Empress of Pleasure.

People interested in Teresa Cornelys and her impact on Georgian social structures might also find Gillian Russell's Women Sociability and Theatre in Georgian London an interesting read. For a history of the events at Carlisle House, British History Online has some great information and for a history of Casanova in Soho, see Judith Summer's article for the Museum of Soho.

Monday, 2 August 2010

The provocative toe

I remember reading Georgette Heyer's Infamous Army and being fascinated by the description of the charismatic Bab Childe's feet, or rather toe nails. She had painted them gold - an act seen as evidence of her wild nature and provocative ways.

I was researching some details for a short story where my respectable 18th century heroine wants to appear scandalous in order to frighten off a highly conventional aristocratic suitor. That entails a major makeover. Ever since the transformation of Plain Jane Superbrain to dashing pin up girl ("Neighbours", circa 1986) I have loved a good makeover. My heroine Emma's outfit is key to her assumed role as a spendthrift and scandalous seductress.

I decided that Emma should place herself at the vanguard of fashion, wearing diaphanous grecian style robes whilst her contemporaries were still in their rich brocades and silks. That places her in 1794, a good year ahead of when the "short-waisted" dresses (empire line to us) became commonplace.

My problem was her footwear. I wanted to put in sandals, but research into footwear in the period suggested that in the 1790s, the high heeled brocade shoes prevalent throughout the 18th century were giving way to the ballet style pumps familiar to us from Jane Austen (and of course Georgette Heyer).

It took a ridiculous amount of research on this apparently small detail to turn up an answer on a fantastic website, helpfully called A History of Footwear. The author writes:

Sandals begin to be worn in the 1790’s, but the open cut outs are frequently underlain with embroidered silk to hide the naked foot. At the very end of the period, in 1813, Grecian sandals appear, leaving the foot almost bare. These were low cut pumps with ribbons to cross and tie around the ankle. These were so simple to make that wealthy women took to making their own as a hobby.

Excellent! So for Emma to wear sandals without embroidered silk over her toes, was to make her very scandalous indeed. Perfect - footwear all sorted. It just remains to be seen what colour those provocative toenails might be.

For a couple of excellent articles on historical footwear check out: A History of Footwear and Miss Shoes' wonderful blog post on 18th century footwear. .

Some beautiful images of actual 18th and 19th century costumes can be found (for sale) at Vintage Textile, the source of the images in this post.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Walsingham... the original spymaster

Just a quick note on a piece of research I've been doing for the back story of my Spies by Night (a prize for anyone who can come up with a better name) project.

Sir Francis Walsingham was the original spymaster. As Elizabeth I's Principal Secretary he employed a vast network of spies right across Europe, largely funded from his own coffers. Many of his methods, including surveillance and cryptography, laid the foundations for modern day espionage.

One of the things I find intriguing about supernatural romances, and specifically vampire romances, is their ability to span time and to leapfrog generations. How would someone who was a spy for Walsingham fare in modern day espionage? What would their role look like? How would they react to changes in society and the rule of law?

That's one of the reasons I decided to make my vampire romance contemporary, but its hero five hundred years old: a vampire born into espionage under the watchful eye of Francis Walsingham and thrown into the modern world of Russian Organised Crime.

Both historical and supernatural romance allow us to suspend disbelief, because the rules we ourselves operate by don't apply. I love the imaginative potential that offers!

A bit of further reading on Walsingham, for anyone that is interested:

Alan Haynes' "The Elizabeth Secret Service"
Stephen Budiansky's "Her Majesty's Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage"