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Interview

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

Sherry Thomas, author of Delicious

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I am pleased to present an interview with the very talented historical romance writer, Sherry Thomas. Her debut novel, Private Arrangements, garnered instant critical acclaim and Delicious looks to be an even bigger hit.

private arrangements Firstly, congratulations on the success of your debut novel, Private Arrangements. Did you expect such a marvelous response?
The critical reception to Private Arrangements has been a most splendid surprise from the very beginning, especially since I’m the sort of person prone to predict “No, they probably won’t like it too much.” I give huge props to my publisher–Bantam really did everything right by me, from the cover to the ARC giveaway at last year’s RWA Nationals to the distribution of the finished book—and to the online community of bloggers and readers who took a lot of initiative to get the word out. There are other good books that get published and don’t get the fanfare and support and therefore don’t get as much of a response. I’ve been extremely, extremely fortunate.

The late Victorian/Edwardian era is one little seen in historical romance. My roundabout journey to the time period came through the Regency via Restoration England. *g* What inspired you to set your novels at the end of the 19th century, as opposed to the beginning?
In five words, The Shadow and the Star, by Laura Kinsale, in my opinion the best Victorian-set romance ever. Or rather, the particular scene in the book in which the heroine uses a telephone to purchase tickets on a transatlantic steamer. I loved the feeling I got when I read about the telephone—the phone never felt so exotic and exciting to me before or since. Electricity was so very sexy back then. As was the automobile—don’t have to worry about pollution, climate change, or peak oil.  So I was totally sold on the era by that book. I love the turn-of-the-century setting just as much, because of Judith Ivory’s Beast, Bliss, and Dance, which bring the glamour and freedom and newness of the Edwardian era to life. And besides, you don’t have to invent reasons to bath people more than once a week by the end of 19th century. Globalization was already firmly in place in many ways. Women could pursue university education and careers. What’s not to like? (WWI looming on the horizon, alas. One of those days I will write a book set after WWI, to deal with what the children of my characters will have to go through with the Great War.)

deliciousDelicious has been described as a “Cinderella” story. Has the book retained the elements of a fairy tale, or have you given them a good twist?
I’m the one describing it as a Cinderella story, lol. And funnily enough, I first came up with that when I needed something pithy to go on a bookmark. At that point I’d already written and tossed away a good 150,000 words–Delicious went through many tumultuous rewrites. But once the tagline was done—“A man destined for 10 Downing Street. A woman who spends her life in the kitchen. A Cinderella story as you’ve never read.”—I started writing to it. Delicious does retain some elements of the fairy tale: a highborn lady reduced to working in a kitchen, a ball, footgear left behind. But there are no supernatural elements and it’s not precisely a fairy-tale. Or perhaps I should say it’s not a Disney fairy-tale. It’s rather heartbreaking and bittersweet. (I don’t think happiness should be that easy to come by in fiction; the only worthy happy ending is a hard-fought, hard-won one.)

Food plays an important role in the book. How difficult was it to recreate the sumptuous cuisine of the 1890s in prose?
Researching the menus was tremendous fun. I love to read any kind of food anthropology. Writing about food was also pure play—though sometimes torturous for the hungry writer. But making the food matter to the story, so that I’m not writing just food porn, was a whole different story. I tried all kinds of literary devices. I swiped a recipe from The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher (best food memoir ever), stole the madeleine from Remembrance of Things Past, attempted—and eventually discarded—the magical realism from Like Water for Chocolate. As a result, in Delicious, food is never purely food. It is lust, longing, loneliness, regret, and I hope, in the end, fulfillment.

What are some of the themes you find yourself drawn to in your novels, and in the novels of others?
In my own writing I’m very much drawn to reconciliation. I think it is one of the most beautiful and most fully human acts to forgive old trespasses and renew friendship/love. I’m not sure whether I’ve a particular theme that I’m drawn to while reading. I read for the story, the characters, and the prose. I don’t look for themes when I open a book. All I ask is that it holds my attention, which is very, very fickle.

When you began to research the late Victorian/Edwardian era, what sort of things intrigued you? Did you learn anything new? Anything that revised your opinion about the Victorians?
I think the Victorians are nuts. But then again, I think people reading about say, contemporary American society, one hundred years from now would come to the exact same conclusion about us. Reality TV, anyone? What I am continually surprised about is how scientifically and technologically advanced the Victorians were. I think it’s my 20th century insularism, that keep me thinking that prior to 1900 people lived in the dark ages. I used to think the Victorians were very different from us. But more and more at times I feel they are very similar to us, if you compare fin-de-(19th)siècle UK and turn-of-the (21st) century US: the commerce, the materialism, the globalization, the staunch mores of a certain segment of the population, the anti-religious sentiment of a good deal of the rest, the overseas meddling, and the large middle class mostly concerned with the house and the children.

I personally find your prose spare, yet evocative. Did you find your voice easily? What writers have inspired you?
No, my voice did not really come to me until I’d written a million words. Or rather, I myself couldn’t tell that I had a recognizable voice before that. And then one day I wrote the beginning of a new story and my voice was there. It had arrived. I tend to love very lush, ornate writing like Judith Ivory’s. And I did try to copy Ivory’s voice once—but not for long. Because voice is more than how one throws words down on paper, it is representative of the author’s entire outlook. And I just don’t view the world in such saturation of color and details. So I evoke because I have to—I’m not a visual person and I don’t “see” the places where I set my story until I can describe it to myself. Does that make any sense?

Name one book you cannot live without.
LOL. I’m thinking very hard so that probably means I don’t have an absolute favorite book. So I’m going to say I cannot live without the next book I’ll read. I like the new and the next.

What’s next on your plate?
A historical romance set in 1897, half in India, during a spate of uprisings on the Northwest Frontier, and the rest in good old Britain. The heroine is a physician. The hero is a polymath—a fancier version of the usual jack-of-all-trades so I don’t have to decide on what he does. In my head I see him as the mathematician who taught Einstein enough about higher geometry for the latter to formulate the theory of relativity. Now that would be sexy. I also revisit the theme of “marriage-in-distress” here, except this marriage was so distressed, it has been annulled already. *g*

Anything else you would like to add?
Just thank you very much and keep up the good work. I think the Edwardian era is fascinating and I hope more and more readers will fall in love with it.

sherry thomasSherry arrived on American soil at age thirteen. Within a year, with whatever English she’d scraped together and her trusty English-Chinese dictionary by her side, she was already plowing her way through the 600-page behemoth historical romances of the day. The vocabulary she gleaned from those stories of unquenchable ardor propelled her to great successes on the SAT and the GRE and came in very handy when she turned to writing romances herself. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and two sons. When she’s not writing, she enjoys reading, playing computer games with her boys, and reading some more. Read an excerpt of Delicious at Sherry’s website & purchase a copy US or UK.

Nicola Cornick, author of The Last Rake in London

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In celebration of both Nicola Cornick’s latest release, The Last Rake in London, and Mills & Boon’s 100th anniversary, I was delighted to have the opportunity to conduct and interview with this talented author.

From her official bio:

Nicola Cornick
Nicola was born in Yorkshire and spent the first eighteen years of her life there. She credits these early years with having a formative effect on her writers’ imagination in several ways. Firstly she went to school in the eighteenth century dower house that once belonged to the Earls of Harewood. In such auspicious surroundings her love of history and writing flourished, encouraged by some wonderful teachers. She also spent hours walking on the moors that inspired the Brontes and devoured a diet of costume dramas and historical novels. It was during this time that she developed a love of choral music and sang with various choirs that toured the UK and Europe.

In 2006 Nicola was awarded a Masters degree with distinction in Public History at Ruskin College, Oxford for her dissertation on heroes. She is currently researching the history of the National Trust property Ashdown House, in Oxfordshire, where she works as a guide. She also works in a second hand bookshop, which is like letting a chocolate addict loose in a sweet shop Her other interests are wildlife and conservation, music, reading and training guide dog puppies.

Nicola has written 26 historical romances for Harlequin Mills and Boon and HQN Books. She has been short-listed for the RWA RITA® Award, nominated twice for the RNA Romance Prize and Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice awards, and has won the LORIES Award of Excellence.

Ashdown House © NTPL / John Blake Let’s start by getting to know you better. I notice on your website that you work for Ashdown House (I’m green with envy). Care to share the background of the home and your work? How has your work in the manor home influenced your writing?

Thank you very much for inviting me to talk to you today and also for asking about Ashdown House! It is one of the great passions of my life, along with my writing and my family (not necessarily in that order!) Ashdown was built in the seventeenth century by the chivalrous and heroic cavalier William, First Earl of Craven. He was a loyal supporter of Elizabeth of Bohemia, the Winter Queen, and he intended the house to be a home for her but sadly she died before it was completed. She left her portrait collection to William Craven as a thank you for the devoted service he had given to her. It is an amazing experience for me to be able to show visitors around the house and the portrait collection, and to talk to them about the Craven family.

One of the later Earls of Craven married Cornelia Martin, an American heiress. She was only sixteen years old when they met and they had a sumptuous wedding in New York. The Cravens had started out as a fabulously wealthy family, the third richest in England, but by the end of the nineteenth century, when the marriage took place, they were heavily mortgaged. Cornelia transformed the family fortunes and also transformed the Craven mansion houses and their grounds with her money and immaculate taste and style. I would love to write her story one day.

Working at Ashdown has been inspirational for my writing. The history of the house and the era in which it was built fascinate me. I set one of my books, Lord Greville’s Captive, during the English Civil War. One of my favourite occupations is visiting historic houses and soaking up the atmosphere. I always come away bubbling with ideas for stories!

Though the majority of historical romance is set in 19th century Britain, the genre is dominated by American writers. What has been your experience as a British writer of British-set historical romance?

It wasn’t until I was published in the US that I realised how popular the Regency genre was with US and readers and authors. As a reader it was a marvellous discovery for me as I had run through all the UK-published regencies and was desperate for more. You can imagine how excited I felt on discovering such a thriving Regency historical romance genre in the US! The quality of the writing is so high and there is an energy and excitement about US-published historicals that I find makes them huge fun to read.

As a British writer I think it’s true to say that the US is a very difficult market to break into because the competition is so tough and the standard of the writing so high. I think I have been very, very fortunate to be published in the US as well as the UK and to be able to build up a readership that seems to enjoy my “English voice” and get my sense of humour! These days I do think that the UK and US markets have moved much closer together, the US books are available in the UK via the internet and the two readerships talk to each other a lot more on internet loops and groups.

Lord of ScandalFor those unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe your novels?
I’d say they are intensely emotional and pretty hot historicals!

What are some of the themes that draw you to historical romance?
Mmm, that’s an interesting one. I’m not sure that I was consciously aware of any themes drawing me in when I started writing. It was such an instinctive thing and I didn’t stop to analyse it. Later on I became fascinated by similarities and differences throughout history. I like exploring whether human emotions are universal, regardless of the age and place we live. I also like looking at themes such as celebrity, which sound so modern and yet have parallels throughout history. In Lord of Scandal, for example, I was looking at the cult of celebrity in the Regency period and in The Earl’s Prize I explored what it might be like to be a Regency lottery winner.

What authors and/or books have inspired you to be the writer you are today?
Gosh, where do I start? There are so many wonderful authors whose writing I have found inspirational since I was a child. My all time favourites are Jane Austen, Dodie Smith and Robert Neill, whose wonderful historical Mist Over Pendle was hugely influential on me when I was in my teens and is still on my keeper shelf. I also went through a period of devouring time shift novels: Barbara Erskine and James Long (whose book Ferney is one of the best timeshift books ever in my opinion) and Susanna Kearsley.

In terms of Regency romance, is there anyone who comes to reading or writing that without being inspired by Georgette Heyer? Devil’s Cub and The Talisman Ring remain my favourites, up against some pretty stiff competition! Alice Chetwynd Ley was an author whose Regencies I discovered in the 1970s and whose books I still adore. I’d better stop there – I think I could talk endlessly about the authors who have inspired me!

The Last Rake in LondonWhat made you accept the offer to write a novel set in 1908 for Mills and Boon’s 100th anniversary?
I was intrigued and also rather apprehensive when Mills & Boon asked me to write a book set in 1908 as part of their centenary celebrations. I had never set a book in that era before and it was also a very long time since I had studied the Edwardian period so I wasn’t 100% sure I was qualified to do the job! In the end I accepted because I thought I would enjoy the stimulation of writing a book set in a different era and also because I had a very personal connection with 1908; my grandmother, who died earlier this year, would have celebrated her 100th birthday last month so 1908 was “her” year too.

I’ve been studying the Edwardian era for the past five years, and still find new things every day that fascinate me. As you researched The Last Rake in London, what were some things that caught your attention?
I think that the thing that struck me very hard was that some aspects of the society and culture seemed very modern and familiar whilst others seemed utterly alien and divided from the present by an enormous gulf of years and experience. Technology was further advanced than I had realised – I was astonished to discover, for example, that some of the London Underground was up and running and that it was already called “The Tube” as it is today. The other thing that fascinated me was the fight for women’s suffrage, which I had studied a little as part of my MA course at Ruskin College, Oxford. I am someone who believes in exercising her right to vote but when I was reminded of the struggle my forbears had gone through to gain me that right, it was very humbling.

Did you find any similarities between the Regency era and the Edwardian era?
The more I read up on the Edwardian period, the more similarities I noticed. Both eras are known for the dazzling opulence of high society, the lavish country house parties and the glittering London Season but beneath that seethes layers of poverty and violence and deprivation. In both cases the extremes of affluence and poverty were very marked. I think that the more you study it, the more the parallels become apparent.

Dauntsey Park: The Last Rake in LondonWhat resources did you find most helpful for this period?
I started off by watching some costume dramas set in the period, such as the Duchess of Duke Street and Upstairs Downstairs. I felt that would get me into the right mindset and give me a feel for the period. It was great to rediscover those series as they were programmes I had enjoyed in my youth. I also drew on my memories of some of the National Trust properties that I had visited that had Edwardian interiors, such as Lindisfarne Castle, which although it was originally a Tudor fortress was redesigned by Lutyens in 1903.

Once I felt that I had absorbed something of the atmosphere of the period I turned to my reading. Some of the books I enjoyed the most and found the most useful were:

The Edwardians by Roy Hattersley

The Edwardian Country House by Juliet Gardiner

Victorian and Edwardian London by A R Hope Moncrieff

Anything else you’d like to add?
Only to thank you very much for inviting me to blog on Edwardian Promenade and to say that I wish I had found the site before I wrote the book. It’s fascinating and I’ll be returning often. Thank you!

The Last Rake of London can be purchased from amazon, and from eharlequin.

January 2012: The Last Rake in London has been reissued as Dauntsey Park: The Last Rake in London

Kandie Carle, Victorian Lady

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kc-tall-home-2 In my quest to discover what it was truly like to wear the clothes of an Edwardian woman, I discovered the wonderful, bubbly and highly-praised reenactment actress, Kandie Carle. Through period-correct clothing and undergarments, Carle shares intriguing anecdotes and facts about the history of the undergarments, etiquette, leisure activities and home life of women and men of the Civil War, Victorian and Edwardian eras! Her level of expertise was too good to pass up, and with strength and humor matching our Victorian & Edwardian forbears, Ms. Carle kindly took time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions and in the process, clear up a few misconceptions about both women and women’s clothing.

What attracts you to the Victorian/Edwardian era?

Initially it was my family history. I have photos of my Great-Grandmother in the 1890s. Then, doing research on different time periods as an actress, I was intrigued by the women I was reading about. Then, in 1992 I began dancing in a vintage dance performance group and my research had to branch out into the clothing and fashion in particular. As a seamstress I made my own clothing for the balls and dance demos. From there, I was hooked. I loved so much abut the women of the Victorian and Edwardian time periods, their attempts to get the vote, their moving into the workforce, and yet keeping their femininity. I also appreciated the beauty. If you say anything about the time period, you must say it was lovely. The hair, the clothes, the automobiles, home furnishings, even their calling cards. It was ornate, and beautiful.

When you slip on a costume, do you feel transformed into the woman you’re portraying?

Absolutely. Physically, I wear all of the appropriate foundation undergarments, so I stand taller, straighter, and feel automatically more lady-like. I also find myself behaving with more grace and refinement.

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Did Victorian belles really have 15 inch waists?

If you were 13 years old! We always focus on the exception instead of the norm. 15 years of research has shown me that there are many misconceptions about women’s sizes. Certainly we are much larger in terms of weight and girth, but the median height is almost the same: 5′ 4″ to 5′ 6″. Simply standing up straight changes measurements all over the body. There is a 3″ difference in the measurement across my shoulders when I am standing up straight. Add wearing a corset, as young teenagers did, and you may get a 15″ waist. Extant garments which look like adult fashions, many times are actually teenagers clothing, but the styles were so similar, that when compared to the adult fashion plates, we think they are adult women’s clothing! 100 years ago a 15 year old’s dress was shorter, but almost exactly in the style of an adult.

Were there some tight lacing? Sure, was that everyone? No. 100 years from now people will say of us: “Everyone did what Michael Jackson did to himself”. Generalities and stereotyping do a disservice to everyday women of the past who were as varied in stature, height and size as we are today. They certainly didn’t weigh as much, but they weren’t midgets. Specialty attire like wedding gowns, can appear very small to our eye. They were wearing a corset and may have cinched themselves in tighter for the occasion. I challenge any woman of today to deny that they not only lose weight for their weddings, but often wear a tight wedding dress, then three weeks later they are back to their normal size and wouldn’t be able to get into their wedding dress! That’s not a new thing. Also keep in mind that larger clothes were frequently cut down to be made into children’s clothing or made into quilts, etc. So what survives, of everyday people’s clothing, tends to be special occasion or young ladies clothes. I am not referring to the fashionistas of the day, like the Vanderbilts, I am talking about every day women.

How has the corsetry and undergarments shaped the way you think about the Victorian/Edwardian era woman?

Many women were slaves to fashion then, just as many women are today. Look at the incredible use of plastic surgery and cosmetic treatments to achieve what we think of as ideal beauty today. How many women have/will have bunions and other foot problems because of the incessant attachment we have to high heeled shoes? Vanity knows no age. Corsetry of the Victorian and Edwardian eras was a tool they used to achieve what they thought of as the ideal female form. The hourglass, the S curve, the straight ‘Titanic’ era undergarments, etc. all served the purpose of supporting a specific silhouette. If you are genetically predisposed to have an hourglass shape then you will have no trouble getting into an hourglass shaped corset and being relatively comfortable in it. I can wear my Victorian corsetry for several hours while dancing at vintage balls without discomfort because of two things: I made them to fit me, [and] I don’t cinch them in too tightly. It is all relative, especially when you consider they grew up wearing them. They were used it. We are not, so when we do occasionally wear one they are uncomfortable and restrictive. I am amazed at how much the women of the Victorian and Edwardian eras achieved, given their restrictive clothing and undergarments. My respect for them doubled once I experienced living a day in the clothes. We need to remember, corsetry was common underwear. In 1900 1,200 workers were cranking out corsets at the Royal Corset factory in Worcester MA.

What research have you done to get into the mind of the Victorian/Edwardian lady?

My research is ongoing, and I must say it is a lot of fun for me. I have every kind of book imaginable on the subject of clothing, lifestyle, patents, inventions, literature, trades, slavery, sweatshops, dressmaking, sewing manuals, marriage, motherhood, jobs, travel…and the list goes on. I have the diaries, the letters, the biographies and autobiographies as well as the newspapers, catalogues and ladies magazines of the day. They all show me what everyday people were being enticed to buy and use. Articles on politics and the suffragette movement are integral to my presentations. Knowing what and who was in the news of the day is important.

mother and child Describe a typical Victorian/Edwardian lady’s day.

There is no such thing as a typical day for anyone of any time period. It was really dependent on where in the country you lived and where you were in class and station. The typical day for a working class woman is vastly different than the typical day of a middle class woman who was running a household. In turn, the wealthy ladies had a totally different experience of day to day living. In my programs I focus on middle-class women who may have the resources to hire an extra pair of hands to help with the laundry, cooking, cleaning and taking care of the children. There were educated women in the work force in many types of jobs. Her life was going to be very different from the housewife or factory worker. On the whole we need to keep in mind that communities were smaller, and the workload to keep house was much more time consuming than it is for us today. No microwaves, no electric stoves, no automobiles, no indoor plumbing, no automatic washing machines. Washboards and ringer washers were the staple of an Edwardian household of the middle-class, still very labor intensive. Then there was the ironing, with an iron, made of iron! Social obligations also varied dependent on the position you held in your community.

How do the actual garments feel (weight, fabric sensation, walking/running/riding,etc)?

They are heavier than our contemporary clothes, mostly due to the layers and heft of fiber content in the fabrics. I wear authentic pieces for my presentation when it’s an indoor show, (always with a body stocking between my skin and the textile…I want these things to last another 100 years!) and I never wear the real stuff to dance in. When I wear reproduction garments, they are made as close to the originals as possible, including weight and fiber content. No polyester or nylon to lighten the load! For me the biggest difference is the heat. With very little skin exposed, I get warm very fast. Which was helpful 100 years ago when they didn’t have regulated heat in their homes or workplaces, but not fun when I am doing a presentation in a 75 degree room! When I dance, I try to wear lighter weight clothing as they did, as it is an aerobic activity. The corset requires that I relax into it, not struggle or fight against it. It becomes my exoskeleton and is very supportive, especially on the back. And as gravity is not our friend, I can say that it is much nicer to be supported from the under bust gussets in a corset rather than elastic straps down from my shoulders! No wonder we have hunched backs today!

border1-underwearWhat is the most rewarding experience of doing what you do?

I have a couple of main goals in doing my programs. First, to debunk some myths and stereotypes that have been passed down the ages, mainly from badly researched romance novels and TV shows and films like Gone With The Wind. No, they didn’t faint all the time. Yes, they did all kinds of sporting activities, many worked outside the home. Yes, many were educated, more women had a higher education than we give them credit for,etc.etc. Second, if I can get just one person in each audience to look at their own family’s history in a different light, with more appreciation and respect, then I feel I have done my job. Everyday women of 100 years ago were the movers and shakers of their families and towns, but seldom get their names in the history books. I hope the women and men who come and see my programs go home and record their family’s history and pass it on to the younger people in their lives. I also want to bring to light the things we take for granted today, like women voting. We didn’t get the vote until 1920, and it was hard fought for. Some women literally gave up their lives and/or were scorned as terrorists. And yet women today, ages 18-35 comprise the smallest voting populace in the US. That makes me very sad. If women today knew 1/4 of what I know of what the women went through 100 years ago during the height of the suffrage movement, they would never pass a polling place again. They’d go in and vote and say thank you to those women, without whom none of us may ever have gotten the voice in the political arena we enjoy today. We even have a woman running for President…for the second time. Yep, another woman in US history ran for president. Here’s a hint…it was in 1872!

If you could go back in time, where would you go, who would you be, and why?

Wow, I have thought of this many times. I know that I would want to be in my 20s living in the 1890s, I would own a book shop or be a librarian, I would want to be married, without children, living in New England somewhere. A mid-sized city with agriculture nearby.

Any funny anecdotes concerning your profession?

Too many to count, as I have been doing my Victorian Lady programs for 11 years now. It is always fun when gentlemen are in attendance, as there is a lot of humor in my programs. A couple of stories stick out amongst many…One organization decided to market my program as a Reverse Strip Tea (as I get dressed from the inside out, not strip from the outside down). They had a fellow call up and ask if he could make reservations for his buddy’s bachelor party! He was advised that it may not be the event they thought it was and the guy went elsewhere. Twice during my shows I have had a corset lace break as my volunteer was lacing me up. That is always interesting, as the clothes don’t fit if the corset isn’t laced properly, so the show comes to a halt until we can rig the corset to close. I now travel with a back up lace, just in case of a ‘wardrobe malfunction’!

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