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Interview

Check out the interviews held with talented writers and others who contribute to promoting the Belle Epoque!

Interview with Daisy Goodwin, Author of The American Heiress

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Thanks an amazing follower on Twitter I was able to get my hands on an ARC of Daisy Goodwin’s The American Heiress (published in the UK in 2010 as My Last Duchess). I have a definite soft spot for the stories of American heiresses, and Daisy Goodwin managed to touch upon all of the things I enjoy about the “trope” and then some. The story of Cora Cash and her English duke, to say nothing of their families, friends, and servants, has a little of something for everyone–romance, history, social issues, race, marriage, and a frothy dollop of Henry James’s shrewd portraits of transatlantic relations. After completing The American Heiress, I had to track Daisy down for an interview, and she is just as lovely, insightful, and gracious as her book!

Daisy Goodwin

Daisy Goodwin, a Harkness scholar who attended Columbia Film School after gaining a degree in History at Cambridge University, began her TV career at the BBC as an arts producer. At Television Centre, she made films about literary figures, and devised Bookworm and The Nations Favourite Poems Initiative. Whilst at the BBC she also devised the hugely successful shows Looking Good and Home Front. The mother of two children, Daisy also finds time to dream up and edit poetry anthologies, including the bestseller 101 Poems That Could Save Your Life.

What sparked your interest in telling the story of Cora Cash and her status as an American heiress?
I have always wanted to write a novel but didn’t know where to start. Then one day I visited Blenheim Palace and saw the brilliant Sargent portrait of the Duke of Marlborough and his American Duchess Consuelo nee Vanderbilt. The picture shows the pomp and circumstance that came with the title but it is also a depiction of a spectacularly unhappy marriage. I couldn’t get the idea of this smart modern American girl languishing in a palace with no running water or central heating,

There are many similarities between Cora and Consuelo Vanderbilt (9th Duchess of Marlborough, 1895-1920); what do you think is so compelling about Consuelo’s story that authors such as yourself, Edith Wharton, and Henry James find much to inspire their fiction?
There is something irresistible about the idea of a poor little rich girl. I think we would all like to believe that money doesn’t make us happy. As a narrative device, you can’t beat someone coming into a closed society for the first time and discovering that it has its own impenetrable code. One of the greatest compliments I have received on the book is “ It’s like `Henry James without the boring bits.” I am not in Henry James’ league, of course, but I was flattered that the reader understood where I was coming from.

The American HeiressDo you feel you’ve gained a deeper understanding of the fad for transatlantic matches, and the toll it had on American brides and their English husbands?
I have become quite the expert on Dollar Princesses and their impact on English Society. A few of the marriages were happy, [such as the marriages of] Jennie Jerome and Randolph Churchill, [and] May Goelet and the Duke of Roxburghe, but most of them were a straightforward exchange of cash for titles with predictable results. Consuelo’s dowry was worth a hundred million dollars in today’s money. The American heiress found British society as cold as the country piles they were now expected to live in. One American countess, Lady Fermoy, wrote to her mother that she had slept in her furs every night through the winter and she couldn’t go out to dinner as she couldn’t face the chill in decolletage.

In The American Heiress, the ties between mothers and their children is a prevalent theme throughout the book. When you compare the relationship between Cora and her mother with that of Ivo and his mother, did you see any similarities when writing the book? Do you feel these relationships defined how Ivo and Cora viewed the world and interacted with one another?
Definitely. The Double Duchess and Mrs Cash have a great deal in common – they both expect to get their won way in everything. Mrs Cash has money as her weapon, The Double Duchess exploits her feminine charms. I think that one of the reasons that Cora and Ivo are attracted to each other is that they see marriage as a chance for each of them to escape their mothers. But having such dominating mothers means that neither of them are completely formed, they both do a lot of growing up in the book.

When conducting research for the book, did you have a firm footing in the period, or was the setting completely new and exciting?
I studied history at University, and I loved the late nineteenth century. The 1890’s were such an exciting time artistically: Oscar Wilde’s plays, the Yellow Book, Aubrey Beardsley’s astonishing drawings. I had read a lots of novels written in the period: [George] Gissing, Henry James, [Thomas] Hardy, Frances Hodgson Burnett, [Anthony] Trollope (the Duke’s Children), and while I was writing the book I tried to keep my reading in period so that I would get the language right. Nothing worse than finding someone saying ‘Okay’ in 1895.

My Last DuchessThe cult of celebrity was strong during this period. Do you feel the pressures of our present age of 24/7 tabloid coverage are similar or different than those of the past?
I wrote my dissertation at Cambridge on the relationship between the Victorian monarchy and the press. We think that the cult of celebrity is a new thing but actually the press were just as intrusive and as scurrilous a hundred years ago,. True they didn’t have camera phones or electronic surveillance but newspapers had a network of paid informers who were working as servants. A magazine like the New York scandal rag Town Topics was just as full of malicious gossip as National Enquirer is today.

 

While writing the book, did you ever have any doubts about Cora’s happiness as a Duchess?
Absolutely. I didn’t know right until the the end whether Cora would stay or go. I think she married for love and to get away from her mother. She may enjoyed being called ‘Your Grace’ for a moment but Cora is an American girl, she’s not a snob like her mother.

Who were your most challenging characters to write?
Ivo was quite tricky to write. There is a touch of Mr. Rochester in there but I imagine Ivo to be a lot more amusing to be with. I enjoyed writing about Bertha, Cora’s African American maid. I thought it was fascinating that although Britain was/is a society obsessed by class, it didn’t have the race laws that America did. Bertha can marry Jim in England, but in America at the time it would be illegal for a black woman to marry a white man. She finds freedom in England, while Cora finds nothing but restriction.

What expectations do you have of American audiences when reading The American Heiress?
I hope they enjoy it and I am encouraged by the US reaction to Downton Abbey. I hope that people will read it for the characters, the story and for a sideways look at the Special Relationship.

Lastly, what’s next on the horizon?
I am writing a novel set in the mid nineteenth century about the Empress Elizabeth of Austria who was called the ‘most beautiful woman in Europe’. She was a fascinating character whose life has some parallels with Princess Diana. It is what you might call an epic story set in England, Austria and Hungary. I am enjoying the research trips!

Visit Daisy Goodwin on the web at DaisyGoodwin.co.uk where you can enter the world of The American Heiress (aka My Last Duchess). Or, obtain the latest updates on her projects on Facebook and follow her on Twitter!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon on Gertrude Bell

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Today we have a special guest, Elizabeth Kerri Mahon, author of Scandalous Women. She is a professional actress and amateur history geek. Her blog, also named Scandalous Women, was named one of the 100 Best Blogs for History Junkies. A native New Yorker, she still calls Manhattan home.

gertrude bell

Gertrude Bell

(1868 – 1926)

She was called the “female Lawrence of Arabia,’ but that title scarcely begins to describe the life of Gertrude Bell or her accomplishments. At one time, Gertrude was the most powerful woman in the British Empire. Along with T.E. Lawrence, she not only had a role in the Arab revolt against the Turks during World War I but also helped to create the Hashemite dynasty in Jordan and the creation of the modern state of Iraq. Today she is best remembered as one of the foremost chroniclers of British imperialism in the Middle East.

Gertrude was born into a world of privilege. Her grandfather Isaac Lowthian Bell was an industrialist, making his money from the manufacture of steel. Although the family was wealthy, they lived modestly. From childhood Gertrude was fearless, constantly leading her younger brother Maurice into scrapes, climbing trees and walking along the walls near the beach. Gertrude excelled at almost all sports, she could swim, fence, row, play tennis and hockey. At the age of seventeen, having convinced her parents of the wisdom of further education, she enrolled at Lady Margaret Hall, one of only two women’s colleges at Oxford.

Gertrude thrived at Oxford although she chafed at the restrictions that required the women to be chaperoned when they left campus. She was supremely self-confident from the start and wasn’t afraid to debate her professors. With her boundless energy, Gertrude graduated with a first class degree in Modern History in two years, the first woman to do so. Her achievement landed her in The Times of London. It would not be the last time that Gertrude’s accomplishments made her newsworthy.

An attractive woman with abundant red hair she wore casually piled on top of her head, and direct green eyes, Gertrude was extremely popular with a vivacious personality. She was brilliant, opinionated, and good at small talk. However, she had an unfortunate tendency to compare most of the young men that she met to her father and grandfather and found them lacking. She could also be a little confrontational which could be off-putting to some men. When Gertrude was twenty-four, she fell in love with Persia and the Middle-East a love that would last longer than any love affair. She published her first two books, one a travelogue Persian Pictures, the other a translation of the poetry of the Sufi poet Hafiz. By her mid-thirties, Gertrude was fluent in Arabic, French, German, and Persian and had a working knowledge of Turkish and Italian.

In 1900, Gertrude made her first visit to Jerusalem to stay with friends. Before long, she was traveling alone with a guide, a cook and two muleteers. Gertrude was not afraid to venture into areas that few women, let alone men, had penetrated including the Druze, a closed Muslim sect, where she befriended their leader Yahya Bey. For the next fourteen years until World War I broke out, Gertrude criss-crossed the desert, covering most of present day Syria, Turkey, and Mesopotamia, covering more than ten thousand miles on the map, traveling either by horseback or camel. She published her findings in several books including Syria: The Desert and the Sown. Her books opened up the Arab deserts to the Western World. In 1913, she became only the second foreign woman to visit the city of Hayyil. The trip was dangerous, and she was detained in the city for eleven days.

Gertrude met the love of her life, Major Charles ‘Dick’ Montagu Doughty-Wylie in 1906, when they were both thirty-eight. Doughty-Wylie was a distinguished soldier with a chest full of medals, he was everything that she was looking for in a man, but thought she would never find. The only problem was that he was married. They corresponded over the years but it wasn’t until the summer of 1912 that the friendship turned into something more. Despite her passionate love for Dick, Gertrude couldn’t bring herself to become his mistress, and he wasn’t prepared to leave his wife. They had a few brief days together after the war started before they parted. Once again, Gertrude was to be disappointed in love. In April of 1915, Doughty-Wylie was killed at Gallipoli.

Gertrude’s life changed when the Admiralty Intelligence Service in Cairo needed help dealing with the Arabs. Her ability to speak the language, her knowledge of the desert tribes, made her unique. She became the first woman officer in the history of British Intelligence, although the title of Major was only a courtesy title. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Gertrude was asked to conduct an analysis of the situation in Mesopotamia and the options for future leadership of Iraq. Gertrude worked tirelessly to promote the idea of creating the nation that we now know as Iraq to be headed by Faisal, the son of the Hassan bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, one of the instigators in the Arab revolt against the Turks.

Until her death, Gertrude served on the Iraq British High Commission Advisory Group. She became a confidante of Faisal, helping him to achieve his election as King, by introducing him to the tribes in the region. Gertrude earned another nickname “The Uncrowned Queen of Iraq.” Gertrude soon found that working with the new King was not always easy. He could be secretive, manipulative, and too easily influenced. “You may rely on one thing, I’ll never engage in creating kings again; it’s too great a strain.”

On July 12, 1926, two days before her fifty-eighth birthday, she was found dead by her maid, a bottle of sleeping pills on her night-table. It is unclear if it was a suicide attempt or an accidental overdose. There is speculation that on her last trip to England, she may have been diagnosed with a terminal illness, perhaps lung cancer. It would be within Gertrude’s character to end her life rather to spare her parents any suffering. She is buried in the British cemetery in Baghdad in the country that she loved and gave so much of her life for.

Interview with Historical Romance Author, Laura Lee Guhrke

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Laura Lee Guhrke

LAURA LEE GUHRKE spent seven years in advertising, had a successful catering business, and managed a construction company before she decided writing novels was more fun. When she’s not tapping away at her keyboard, Guhrke spends time relearning how to ski, mastering the wakeboard grab, and trying to actually hit a golf ball.

What sparked your desire to set your upcoming trilogy in the Edwardian era? Did you or your editor experience any trepidation over moving into this long “tabooed” time period?

I wanted to write a heroine with a motorcar. I always like to write about women who are strong and independent, and the whole motorcar motif worked really well with my type of heroine. Each heroine in the series has a car. As to the Edwardian era, I’d been wanting to write in this time period for ages, but I just hadn’t gotten the right idea to work from. As to Avon, from the moment I first presented the idea to them, they’ve been incredibly supportive.

Wedding of the Season by Laura Lee GuhrkeSince the publication of your first book, Prelude to Heaven (which I have a copy of, and loved it), you’ve jumped around the 19th century. What differences did you find between your 19th century characters and your early 20th century characters?

I don’t see much difference. Eras may change, but people don’t. Strong women in 1817 are the same as strong women in 1902. The main reason I jumped around so much was that I wrote whatever came to mind, without any regard at all for the marketing aspects. But nowadays, no author can afford to do that, and it’s all worked out. Late Victorian-Edwardian is my niche, I think. I love it.

Wedding of the Season and Scandal of the Year share the same premise—jilted lovers. What inspired you to explore this premise in two different books (and from a woman’s point of view, and then a man’s)?

I never know what inspires me. I just get a glimmer and if I feel a spark, I start chapter one. Being dumped is a universal thing everyone can relate to. Because it’s such a universal thing, and an emotional roller coaster, I wanted to explore the whole rejection dynamic. There are three stories in the Abandoned At The Altar series, and in all three, someone is dumped on the eve of their wedding and has to figure out how to go on with life afterward.

Was it difficult to write two books to be published back-to-back, and with connecting characters?

Incredibly difficult, especially since I hate plotting anything in advance and all three books overlap and merge in time. For example, in SCANDAL OF THE YEAR, there are flashback scenes that overlap events in WEDDING OF THE SEASON. There’s also a scene in SCANDAL that shows the hero of the third book (as yet untitled) in the middle of his story.

Scandal of the Year by Laura Lee GuhrkeDescribe your trilogy in the first three words that come to mind.

Getting dumped sucks.

Some writers describe themselves as hero-centric or heroine-centric. Would you consider yourself to fall in either category? What themes do you find you explore time and time again in your novels?

I’m the same way every time. I write the story, wherever it leads. To me, it has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with the story. I focus on what the characters I’m dealing with are all about. Sometimes, the idea is more hero-centric, or heroine-centric, but either way, I always try to stay true to what the characters demand. As to themes, I do have a soft spot for certain plot lines. I love boss-secretary romances! I could write that theme over and over and over. I love the under-appreciated, taken-for-granted heroine who rebels against her arrogant employer, and when she leaves, his whole life falls apart and he has to get her back. What’s not to love about that? I also love childhood sweethearts. There’s something so sexy about a hero who has always been a sucker for the same girl.

Which resources have you found must-reads for learning about the Edwardian era?

You, Evangeline! I also like newspapers from the time I’m writing in. And novels contemporary to the period. You get a true, authentic feel for the era that way.

Did you discover anything unusual or fun about the early 1900s?

The most surprising thing was finding out how many things were being used that one might think came later. The electric doorbell, for instance. The Edwardian era is challenging because new inventions and advances were coming so fast, one right on top of another, and you have to really research not only what was invented, but what was available to the characters, and what was in common usage. Sometimes, of course, you do have to take fictional license because the information you need is just not available or easily obtainable.

Do you plan on remaining in the Edwardian period after you complete your trilogy?

I think I’d like to stick with this time period for a while. I’m really liking it. And I want to do a character with an airplane!

What do see next on the horizon for your writing career? Anything else you’d like to add?

I have no idea what’s next. It depends on the idea, and right now, I don’t know what will spark me creatively. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Thank you Laura for your candid and humorous interview! Visit Laura’s website, where you can read excerpts from the Abandoned at the Altar series, “about devilish dukes and the women they love.”