Some possibly unpopular thoughts

A few things have happened in the last month or so to put diversity in historical romance at the forefront of my mind. All of them came to a head when I was reading tweets discussing the recent post on SmarthBitches. So I went over and read it. It’s basically the same argument/discussion that I’ve seen kicking around Romancelandia since the oughts when I first joined. I’ve seen it called a chicken and egg syndrome: readers can’t buy what isn’t for sale, but I’m here to tell you, readers don’t seem to buy it when it is for sale. And while we may all bemoan this, that doesn’t change it.

Historical romance is very white, straight, cis, and upper-class. It’s also kind of like playing jenga. It’s really hard to remove one of those and not have the whole thing come crashing down. Why? Let’s take a look (hopefully without making judgments about readers or authors, which I’ve seen quite enough of lately).

Dukes sell. They just do, like it or not. A few authors have managed to make names for themselves by moving into the gentry (Carla Kelley and Rose Lerner spring to mind) and some authors are pulling off love stories among the lower classes (like Erica Monroe), but from what I’ve seen during my writing career, when you leave the ton behind, you lose a lot of the readers who want that extra soupçon of fantasy.

Books set outside of Georgian/Victorian England and Scotland are harder to sell. I honestly don’t know why this is, but even Ireland and France are hard, let alone Ancient Rome or Shogunate Japan. A lot of us thought (hoped!) that indie publishing would unleash a tidal wave of settings that would brush away Regency England’s chokehold on the genre. Didn’t happen. And every time a new historical TV show is a hit, I see a flurry of hope that the setting will crossover into publishing. But it never seems to. Thankfully, there are authors writing other settings (like Beverly Jenkins, Jeannie Lin, and Sandra Schwab), but those are labors of love. Readers vote with their wallets, and the majority of them vote for Georgian/Victorian England and Scotland (preferably with dukes).

Because the most popular setting is among the 18th and 19th century British ton, the most popular characters are by default Caucasian. There are ways to work in characters of other races/ethnicities (England certainly had free blacks, a Jewish population, Anglo-Indians, Indians, and Chinese), but outside of an Anglo-Indian character, it’s hard to get a non-Caucasian character into the ton. For example, the movie Belle radically changed her actual history to make her wealthy and accepted in a way that she wasn’t in real life. Why? My best guess was that her real life story wasn’t romantic enough. The best examples I can find for how she might have been viewed in her own time are in the works of Austen (Sanditon) and Thackeray (Vanity Fair), which both have wealthy prospective brides who are mixed race as Dido was. Austen treats it as a non-issue. Thackeray does not. Both of which fit with the changing ideas of race and class as depicted in the book White Mughals (which I highly recommend).

Straight and cis. Yep. See above. There are certainly ways to tell gay and trans stories in a historical setting. There are real world examples (Lord Hervey, the Chevalier d’Eon, possibly the Ladies of Llangollen, maybe Dr James Berry), and I’m glad to see these stories being told (e.g. KJ Charles and Cat Sebastian), but we’ve not yet reached a place where these books aren’t niche when it comes to readers (I’ve seen discussions about why some readers avoid these and it’s much the same as why they avoid roms about working class people: the nagging worry about security breaks the fantasy for them; so while a contemp LGBTQ rom works for them, a historical one doesn’t because the HEA never feels “safe”).

So, what does this all add up to? It adds up to authors wanting to make a living (which I’ve been told is an inadequate excuse; a statement with which I strongly disagree) and publishing being a risk-adverse business. When it takes months (or years, depending on the author) to write a book, purposefully writing one that isn’t “to market” is a risky choice, especially if this is how you support yourself. And it comes down to readers.

How does this play out in real life?

When I pitched my first series, c. 2004, I pitched a black hero for book three. I was told by agents and editors that it was a no-go. The profit and loss on it was too risky, especially since those sales numbers would haunt us forever and would probably kill my career (which is funny, since losing a slot at a certain Big Box store killed that pen name long before this book would ever have come out). I did squeeze in a half-Turkish hero (my lowest selling book to date) and I got roundly told that bi-racial characters were “cheating” (as someone who IS bi-racial, this still pisses me off to no end).

[As an aside, I’ve also seen authors’ attempts to diversify their series dismissed as “tokenism”. So I’m damned if I don’t include any diverse protagonist in my series, and damned if I do, but not to the (arbitrary) extent that pleases whomever is deciding these things. Please note, there was a long discussion of this at a recent conference and several authors flat out said they’d rather be dismissed with the faceless majority than paint a target on their back so they could be singled out for tokenism or fake-diversity. I sincerely doubt this is the goal those pushing for diversity wanted, but it’s the one they got.]

Back to me: When I brushed myself off and began pitching again, I always pitched that guy’s book. Agents and editors were suddenly talking about wanting unusual, stand-out books (c. 2008). Books with a different angle. Books with a hook. Books they could promote as DIFFERENT. You know what they meant? They meant maybe not a duke, but still duke-adjacent. Oh, they loved the younger sons angle, but could I throw in a secret society to make it all hang together? I wish I were joking.

Sneak Peak: cropped image of my fencing master’s cover image

Ok, so this time I put that black character IN the series. I was hoping I’d get fan mail asking for his book that I could show my editor. I never did. Not a single email or tweet. What did I get? Requests for very minor (white) walk-on characters. *sigh* When I submitted by my black fencing champion as the hero for one of the books, I got told they’d let me do an e-only novella for him. Not even a novella set with other authors who were also writing Georgian (which they had!). None of that came to fruition anyway, and I left NY, so his book is still sitting there on the back burner (though I have cover shot, so I’ve got that tucked away waiting). This is a story I really want to write, but to date no one has wanted to publish it and I’m honestly not sure readers will pick it up unless I’m very, very lucky. And yes, I have a plan to hopefully help my luck, but if I had to pay my bills with writing monies, I can’t say that this book would ever be written. I know that every hour I put into that book is an hour I might not get paid for; or at least not at the rate that I would get paid if I was writing a duke. But I’m lucky. I have a day job that pays my way and a stubborn streak that wants to write what it wants to write. So, eventually my fencing master will get his book and I’ll get to see if readers love him or if only I do.

So that’s my take. YMMV.





Posted in Isobel Carr, Rant, Reading, Risky Book Talk, Writing | 40 Comments

Who wore it best?

Yesterday, my daughters and I went out to shop for a prom dress for my youngest. We had a lot of fun and she found a lovely princess-y dress that fits her perfectly. It’s making me think about pretty dresses in general, and the gowns Austen heroines wore to balls and other events.

Here’s Catherine Morland in the 2007 Northanger Abbey, looking very pretty as she should. Love the embroidery!

I had to show the 2007 version first. Here’s an image from the 1986 version, which I thought as weird and problematic as the 2007 version was charming.

On to Pride & Prejudice–so many versions!

The costumes in the 1940 version always crack me up! I have heard they were reused from Gone with the Wind, but I can’t verify that particular rumor.

Here’s Elizabeth Garvie in the 1980 version, which I know many people like, though I thought David Rintoul was too stiff for Darcy. Anyway, she looks lovely and Regency, though perhaps that decolletage is more revealing than I expected for Elizabeth?

Here’s Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth in the much-loved 1995 version with Colin Firth. This must have been taken for promo purposes because it isn’t from a scene in the movie, but shows the gown nicely. I love the pleating in the bodice and think her hair looks both accurate and lovely. Yes, I think this is my favorite P&P outfit.

And here’s Keira Knightley in the 2005 version, known for its controversial costumes. The waist is lower than we expect for Regency (maybe it was an attempt at doing something more transitional, late 1790s?) but it is pretty. Her hair looks nice but doesn’t feel quite accurate to me. The lack of gloves is rather jarring, too.

I know she’s a minor villain and not the heroine, but I can’t go without mentioning Caroline Bingley as played by Kelly Reilly. I’ve only seen one sleeveless gown in any period images, and that was in a portrait where the dress may have been more of a costume than regular apparel. Maybe this “gown” was intended to portray Caroline as racy and fashion-forward, but I can’t help thinking real Regency people would be worrying that she’d lost her mind showing up at a ball in what looks more like undergarments. Though unlike Elizabeth, she is wearing gloves.

I thought the 1971 version of Sense and Sensibility was rather a snooze, but I’m finding some of these pics quite amusing. I hadn’t remembered how much the sisters looked like twins. So dramatic and so fluffy! Though actually I rather love the gauzy sleeves.

These are not ball gowns but this image of matchy-matchy outfits is too funny not to share.

I really, really like these dresses from the 1996 version with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. I have a pale blue Regency gown, but if I ever get another, I’d like to have one like these, in a deeper color with metallic trim.

I liked the 2008 version of Sense and Sensibility, but I’m puzzled by the gloves in these pictures. Evening gloves in fashion prints and other pictures are nearly always white though I’ve heard of pink and yellow (not green though). Since the Dashwood sisters aren’t wealthy, I would have thought they (especially Elinor) would have white ones that would go with any gown. But these don’t even go well with the gowns! I have a theory. Maybe the kind but somewhat vulgar Mrs. Jennings bought them for the girls as a gift, and they felt obliged to wear them?

Here’s Gwyneth Paltrow in the 1996 version of Emma. This is a nice example of a layered dress. Very chic! I’ve heard that the gowns for this production were a bit fancier than reality, but they are lovely to look at.

And here’s an image from the 2009 version, which reminded me that that I have never seen it!  Now putting it onto my To Do List!  This gown is lovely and although white was popular, it’s also historically accurate to have some colors.

Here’s Amanda Root in the 1995 version of Persuasion. I like the detail around the neckline and the jewelry. Very lovely and ladylike!

Here’s an image from the 2007 version, which I have mixed feelings about (well, no mixed feelings about that awkward-not-in-a-good-way kiss). But I like the velvet and the color is interesting.
I’ve seen two versions of Mansfield Park, neither of which I feel is a good representation of the book. Letting that go, I did enjoy the 1999 version as a story on its own. The embellishment on this dress is interesting–I’d like to hear from a costume expert as to whether it is accurate. But again, there is a shocking dearth of gloves.

The 2007 version I saw only once and thought it very strange. I couldn’t find a ballroom image but here is Fanny on what must have been her wedding day. I’m not sure what I dislike more: the inaccuracy of the costuming, her pose, or her sullen expression.


So which dresses are your favorites?  Any theories on the odd gloves in the 2008 S&S, or Caroline Bingley’s gown in the 2005 P&P? Or why Fanny looks so unhappy about marrying Edmund?


Posted in Clothing, Frivolity, TV and Film | Tagged , | 15 Comments

The Argyll Rooms

When I was writing Bound By Their Secret Passion, the final book in the Scandalous Summerfields series, I needed to invent a masquerade that would attract the most scandalous of London’s aristocracy and the Cyprian world. I decided to place the ball in the Argyll Rooms. The year is 1818.

The Argyll Rooms were originally at the corner of King Street and Little Argyll Street in what was once the north wing of the mansion of the Duke of Argyll, partially demolished to build Little Argyll Street. It opened as the Argyll Rooms in 1806, hosting various entertainments such as music, dancing, burlettas, and dramatic performances, including readings by the famous Sarah Siddons. And, of course, the infamous Cyprian’s Ball.

In 1818, though, the old Argyll Rooms were to be demolished to make way for New Street, which would eventually be called Regent Street.  Here’s the map showing the eventual path of Regent Street.

So I invented a last Masquerade Ball in the old Argyll Rooms. Luckily I found a detailed description of the rooms in British History Online.

The Rooms were ‘fitted up in a style of great magnificence. Corinthian pillars, illuminated by gilt lamps, grace the entrance and the lobbies. The ground-floor consists of three very extensive rooms, the first of which is hung with scarlet drapery. The drapery of the second is a rich salmon colour, lined with pea-green. The third, though inferior to the others, is nevertheless, finished in a capital style; and the whole is most brilliantly lighted up.

‘The grand saloon is of an oblong form, with elliptical terminations, and is used for the purpose of theatrical representations; and also for masquerades and balls. Above the entrance, on each side, are three tiers of boxes, amounting in the whole to twenty-four. The first range above the ground tier is ornamented with elegant antique bas-reliefs in bronze; the upper tier is of ethereal blue, decorated with scrolls in stone colour, and both are enclosed with scrolls in rich gold mouldings. Over each box is a beautiful circular bronze chandelier, with cut-glass pendants. The draperies are of scarlet; and the supporters between the boxes represent the Roman ox, and Fasces, in bronze and gold.

‘At the opposite end are the orchestra and stage, over which is the following appropriate motto: “Sollicitæ jucunda oblivia vitæ”. The walls of the middle space, of an ample size, are superbly ornamented with ranges of Corinthian pillars, representing porphyry with gold capitals. On the intermediate pannels, which are surrounded with borders of blue and gold, are basreliefs, in stone colour, as large as life, the subjects of which are admirably adapted to the purposes for which they are placed there….’

I was able to sprinkle in this description as my characters moved from room to room at the masquerade ball, eventually winding up in one of those very private boxes.

Here’s how my imagined masquerade ball might have appeared, although this print is from 1825 when the new Argyll Rooms would have been opened:

Theodore Lane, George Hunt – The British Museum

Bound By Their Secret Passion will be released in paperback on March 22 and as an ebook on April 1. You can get a sneak peek here.

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Spring Thinking: Looking Forward, into the Past

As I pondered a topic for this month, a friend suggested “spring fashions” and here’s what happened: 1) I decided fellow Risky Isobel’s expertise on Regency fashions so far exceeds my own, I should leave that topic to her, and 2) I started to suffer an almost rabid craving for spring in England. Is anyone else feeling it?

Spring comes earlier to England, at least to much of it, than it does to my own location in New England, in the U.S. I recall vividly my surprise to discover snowdrops blooming in London in January the first time I ever crossed the pond. This month, March, is when I usually begin to look for them here, and not this early in March, either, despite the very mild weather we’ve recently had here.

But, oh, in England! March is a month for daffodils and other spring flowers we are only still wishing for where I live. Here the green tips are only just beginning to show in the gardens. I found some potted primroses in my local market and had to buy them, even though they are already fading. This tiny watercolor by E. Daniels (it’s only 2 inches by 2 ¼ inches) graces a shelf in my office, a beloved souvenir from a past trip to England that gives me primroses year-round.

In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare wrote: “Daffodils/That come before the swallow dares, and take/ The winds of March with beauty”. This image has lasted through the centuries. The seasons and nature offer a wonderful bridge between us and the past. The same kind of March winds that Shakespeare mentioned are roaring outside my windows today as I write this, even if I haven’t yet any nodding daffodils. These kinds of seasonal details help us as storytellers trying to make our historical fiction feel real. We need those threads of common experience that transcend the centuries to help anchor our characters and plots!

Several of my books are set in late spring, or at least begin then. In my first one, A Perilous Journey, I took a little liberty to have my characters find late-blooming daffodils even though it was May, but at least they were in the north on their way to Scotland…. I’ve always loved the playful cover created by artist Alan Kass for the original (OP) Signet edition of that book.  (It is only available now from Penguin Intermix as an ebook.)

The arrival of spring, when it finally does come here, probably won’t cure my craving for England (I am sooooo overdue for a visit!). However, it will help. In the meantime, I’ll go out and check the forsythia to see if it has started to bud. I’ll bring some branches inside to “force” into bloom and tide me over while I wait! I’m certain that’s something a Regency heroine might do, if I ever start a story in March. But not with forsythia, and not because it would already be blooming. It wasn’t introduced in England until after the Regency. A Regency heroine would have to use flowering quince, or pear, apple, or cherry branches from the orchard, or lilacs, or mock orange or….hmm, more research required. Perhaps she’ll just pick some daffodils!!

Where do you like to ferret out what would be blooming when in your stories? Or, what sources do you love to go back to for inspiration, not necessarily information? My favorites for inspiration include both the Country Diary and the Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady (Edith Holden), even though these are not from our period. For sheer visual inspiration, I’m currently enjoying a lovely book called The Writer’s Garden: How Gardens Inspired Our Best-Loved Authors, by Jackie Bennett with photography by Richard Hanson. A picture book that visits the homes and gardens of 19 authors, starting with Jane Austen at Godmersham and Chawton, it is a visual treat and a delightful way to travel by armchair! I highly recommend it, especially if you’re craving spring and it hasn’t come yet where you are!!





Posted in Risky Book Talk, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

In Search of Braces on the Bookshelf

Some of the Bookshelves in Sandra's StudyLike everybody who writes historical fiction of any kind (I imagine), I have collected a surprising number of research books over the years. Some are exactly the kind of books you would expect to find on my shelves – like the books on English country houses and those on the history of London; others are a bit more… shall we say “eclectic”? There’s a book on medieval warhorses (bought in 2001 when I was in Galway as an exchange student), a very comprehensive book on elements of castle building (bought in 1998 when I was still writing fantasy fiction), a book on secret orders throughout history, a catalogue of the Museo La Specola in Florence (a museum of historical anatomical waxes) (why, Sandy, why?!!?!?), and more than one survival guide.

I started collecting research books for my writing in my late teens, so some of those books I’ve had for over twenty years. (And one book has… um… wandered from my parents’ shelves to my own.) I have always loved knowing that I can probably find a book on whatever I want to look up on my shelves. Of course, with the internet, the game has changed completely. Still, I like to have the books on my shelves — just in case.

Now, when you write the kind of historical fiction where your main characters happily shed their clothes on a regular basis throughout the story, it’s always helpful to know how many layers they have to get out of and how these clothes work. For some reason, though, I had never dwelt much on the exact workings of male clothes, except for the obvious, like, if it’s Regency, you want him to pull off his shirt over his head.

That kind of changed when I started to write m/m.

So after doing some intense research on woolen jumpers, there I was in the middle of getting my two Regency guys out of their clothes, when suddenly it occurred to me, “Oh my gosh, what about braces!?!?!?”

What followed were several minutes of me staring intently at the aforementioned bookshelves, scanning my fashion books — only to realize that while I own a good number of books dedicated to female fashion (like Cunnington’s English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century or Bradfield’s Costume in Detail 1730-1930), I don’t own anything that is solely dedicated to male fashion.

Oh dear. (= A very British way to imply a crisis of epic proportions.)

But luckily,  Johnstone’s Nineteenth-Century Fashion in Detail (bought in 2008 in the V&A) came to my rescue. Though for the most part covering female fashion, it still has a few entries on male clothes. Hooray!

As the title implies, the book focuses on details of fashion and includes close-up photos of specific parts of clothes (even though you always get a sketch of the whole piece as well). Moreover, the notes give information about the construction of the depicted pieces of clothing in question, which is really helpful for understanding how these clothes were worn and how beautifully made they were. (I might have said “Ooooohhh!!!!” a couple of times in response to photographs of gorgeous ruffles down the sleeve of a dress or of the intricate embroidery covering the hem of a dress.)

And then I stumbled across these pantaloons.

a picture of Sandra's desk with the open book showing the pantaloonsAren’t they GORGEOUS? (And yes, braces. Look at the two top buttons on each side.)

Pantaloons, the accompanying text informs us, “were a form of close-fitting trousers or tights introduced into fashionable dress during the 1790s. They complemented the close-fitting lines of early nineteenth-century men’s coats as they were shaped to the leg, often ending just above the ankle where button fastenings or straps kept them in place. Although difficult to cut and put together without causing creases or wrinkles when the leg was moved, they could look extremely elegant. […] Pantaloons also brought the glamour of military uniform into men’s fashionable dress, especially when teamed with Hessian boots.” The decorated front, however, is unusual, which makes the author conclude that this particular pair might have been for military use.

Still, by that point, I had thoroughly fallen in love with that embroidered front (and all the possibilities it offered for some… eh… playfulness), so I decided they would be exactly the kind of thing my grumpy earl would wear if he wanted to impress somebody special. 🙂

And speaking of the grumpy earl: I got the revision suggestions back from my editor (who loved the story — wheeee!!!), so this morning, my desk features a new, crisp printout of the manuscript, all ready for me to get started on those revisions. Wish me luck!

Sandra's Author Desk

Posted in Clothing, Regency, Research, Writing | 6 Comments

The Life and Opinons of Ignatius Sancho

One of my favorite Georgian novels is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (and not just because I also adore the movie with Albert Finney!). I own a Victorian copy in two volumes that I found at a used bookstore in Berkeley when I was in grad school. It was far too expensive for my scholarly pockets, but I had to have it (mostly because it had been signed by the original owner when he finished reading it in 1868 and again by a subsequent owner in the 1930s). All of this is a long way of introducing one of my favorite bits of triva about the novel. Ignatius Sancho (the famous black abolitionist and the first black man known to have voted in a British election) wrote Sterne, the author or Tristram Shandy, a letter asking him to write something opposing slavery. Sterne not only replied, but he kept the letters and they were both published posthumously in 1775. [Note: Tristram Shandy was originally published in nine volumes over seven years, this exchange took place before the final volume was published in 1767; the scene Sterne refers to in his reply in in the final volume.] It seemed fitting to share this exchange for Black History Month.

Ignatius Sancho

Sancho to Sterne
It would be an insult on your humanity (or perhaps look like it) to apologize for the liberty I am taking.—I am one of those people whom the vulgar and illiberal call “Negurs.”—The first part of my life was rather unlucky, as I was placed in a family who judged ignorance the best and only security for obedience.—A little reading and writing I got by unwearied application.—The latter part of my life has been—thro’ God’s blessing, truly fortunate, having spent it in the service of one of the best families in the kingdom.—My chief pleasure has been books.—Philanthropy I adore.—How very much, good Sir, am I (amongst millions) indebted to you for the character of your amiable uncle Toby!—I declare, I would walk ten miles in the dog days, to shake hands with the honest corporal.—Your Sermons have touch’d me to the heart, and I hope have amended it, which brings me to the point.—In your tenth discourse, page seventy—eight, in the second volume—is this very affecting passage—”Consider how great a part of our species – in all ages down to this—have been trod under the feet of cruel and capricious tyrants, who would neither hear their cries, nor pity their distresses.—Consider slavery—what it is—how bitter a draught—and how many millions are made to drink it!”—Of all my favorite authors, not one has drawn a tear in favour of my miserable black brethren—excepting yourself, and the humane author of Sir George Ellison.—I think you will forgive me;—I am sure you will applaud me for beseeching you to give one half hour’s attention to slavery, as it is at this day practised in our West Indies.—That subject, handled in your striking manner, would ease the yoke (perhaps) of many—but if only of one—Gracious God! – what a feast to a benevolent heart!—and, sure I am, you are an epicurean in acts of charity.—You, who are universally read, and as universally admired—you could not fail—Dear Sir, think in me you behold the uplifted hands of thousands of my brother Moors.—Grief (you pathetically observe) is eloquent;—figure to yourself their attitudes; hear their supplicating addresses!—alas!—you cannot refuse.—Humanity must comply—in which hope I beg permission to subscribe myself,
Reverend, Sir, &c.

Sterne’s Reply to Sancho
There is a strange coincidence, Sancho, in the little events (as well as in the great ones) of this world: for I had been writing a tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro—girl, and my eyes had scarse done smarting with it, when your Letter of recommendation in behalf of so many of her brethren and sisters, came to me—but why her brethren?—or yours, Sancho! any more than mine? It is by the finest tints, and most insensible gradations, that nature descends from the fairest face at St James’s, to the sootiest complexion in Africa: at which tint of these, is it, that the ties of blood are to cease? and how many shades must we descend lower still in the scale, ‘ere Mercy is to vanish with them?—but ’tis no uncommon thing, my good Sancho, for one half of the world to use the other half of it like brutes, & then endeavour to make ’em so. For my own part, I never look Westward (when I am in a pensive mood at least) but I think of the burdens which our Brothers & Sisters are there carrying—& could I ease their shoulders from one once of ’em, I declare I would set out this hour upon a pilgrimage to Mecca for their sakes—[which] by the by, sancho, exceeds your Walk of ten miles, in about the same proportion, that a Visit of Humanity, should one, of mere form—however if you meant my Uncle Toby, more—he is [your] Debter,
If I can weave the Tale I have wrote into the Work I’m [about]—tis at the service of the afflicted—and a much greater matter; for in serious truth, it casts a sad Shade upon the World, That so great a part of it, are and have been so long bound in chains of darkness & in Chains of Misery; & I cannot but both respect and felicitate You, that by so much laudable diligence you have broke the one—& that by falling into the hands of so good and merciful a family, Providence has rescued You from the other.
And so, good hearted Sancho! adieu! & believe me, I will not forget [your] Letter. [Yours]

Posted in History, Isobel Carr, Reading, Research, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Imaginary trips

I know there are reasons why college financial aid paperwork and income tax paperwork have to done at the same time, but I don’t have to like it!

When I am up to my eyeballs in Things I Don’t Enjoy, I take the odd moment to fantasize about travel. Lately I’ve been dreaming about a trip back to the UK.  I lived there for three years while on international assignment, but that was twenty years ago. I am really longing to go back and hoping it may be possible in a few years.

Of course I will want to revisit London and perhaps other major cities. But my heart is really in the countryside. Since I don’t have a lot of time to write about my favorite locations (have to get back to that annoying paperwork), I hope you will enjoy some pictures from some of my places I’d revisit in my dream tour.

I would definitely go back to Sussex and revisit favorite walks and pubs there.

Countryside in Sussex

I couldn’t miss Cornwall—so craggy and romantic.

Lands End in Cornwall, UK

The Cotswolds are how I imagine as the Shire, from The Lord of the Rings. 

Evening time near the pretty Cotswold village of Ilmington, Warwickshire, England

The Yorkshire moors—breezy and other-worldly.

View from the top of Hasty Bank into Bilsdale, North Yorkshire Moors

I think my favorite area may be the Lake District.

Stone Barn overlooking Ullswater in the English Lake District

Where would you most like to go, whether in the UK or elsewhere?


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Ahem. Yes. Hello

Boy, it’s been a tough several months for me, in case anyone was wondering. In fact, I’ve essentially missed making this post, too, because I thought I was supposed to post the 10th.

Hopefully things right-size in a bit. I’ve had my head down working on Surrender to Ruin, book 3 of my Sinclair sister’s series. It’s back from my editor and I’m going through and revising. I’m so, so close to being done!

I’ll keep this short, I have to get back to work. Everyone take care, and I promise I will have something of actual interest next time.


Posted in Anything but writing | Tagged | 2 Comments

Visiting the Elgin Marbles

In Bound By A Scandalous Secret, (December, 2016), my hero, Ross, surprises aspiring artist heroine, Genna, with a special visit to view the Elgin Marbles, which (to the best of my research abilities) were housed in a shed behind Burlington House in 1816, when my story takes place.

The Elgin Marbles are Classical Greek marble sculptures that once decorated the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens. Originally the Earl of Elgin had obtained a permit from the sultan of the Ottoman Empire who then ruled Greece to make casts of the sculptures, but he noticed that the marbles were being burned for lime to use in other buildings. He decided to rescue them and send them to England. At the time, his acquisition of the marbles was met with mixed support. Some, like Lord Byron, were appalled at their removal. He wrote about it in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:

Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!

1822 Engraving

Elgin suffered financial reversals and hoped to sell the marbles to the British Government, who eventually exonerated him from acquiring the sculptures illegally. Parliament purchased the marbles in 1816 but at a much lower cost than Elgin had desired. After the purchase, the marbles were housed in the shed behind Burlington House, which held the collections of the British Museum.

Because my hero Ross is the heir to a dukedom, he was able to arrange a private viewing for Genna. Here’s a snippet of that scene:

Huge slabs of marble lined the sides of the shed. Scattered around were ghostly figures. Headless. Armless. Standing. Reclining.
Genna stepped inside reverently. “Oh, Ross!”
She walked along the perimeter where the long slabs of marble that used to decorate the frieze of the Parthenon. The sculpted figures depicted all sorts of figures, men on horseback, on foot or racing chariots, women carrying items, for sacrifice to the gods, perhaps? Everything seemed in motion. Rearing horses, figures interacting, no two the same.
“It must tell a story,” Genna said. “I wish I knew what it was.” She dared to touch the sculpture, almost surprised the figures were not as warm as flesh they were so realistic.
“Here is a Centaur fighting a Lapith,” he said.
It was one segment, not a part of the long procession of figures that had been part of the frieze. Had there been more Centaurs? Did they tell a different story?

Lapith and Centaur

The marbles are now in a special room in the British Museum where I’ve been lucky enough to view them three times. They are massive and impressive!

Diane and pal Julie – photo taken by Risky, Amanda McCabe

The debate continues as to whether the UK should return the marbles to Greece. All I know is that the British Museum has taken excellent care of them and that there is no guarantee that they would even exist if Elgin had not seen to their preservation.

What do you think? Should the marbles go back to Greece or stay in the British Museum?

By the way, the last book in my Scandalous Summerfields series, Bound By Their Secret Passion, now has a cover and is available for preorder. It will be released in paperback March 21, in ebook, April 1.

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How Rich was Rich?

Money is not an acceptable topic of conversation among the gently-bred, so I beg forgiveness for breaking the taboo. We people our books with wealthy, dashing characters who are the equivalents of today’s super rich –dukes and earls instead of billionaire corporate tycoons –but haven’t you ever wondered, how rich was “rich” in our period? (Alas, I am STILL working on my revisions of The Magnificent Marquess, so no announcement yet that it is up and available! But very soon….)

An income of £10,000 was considered a threshold to “live the good life” among the Beau Monde, with a regular social life in London as well as the country. This is the income Jane Austen gives Darcy. How far beyond that level of wealth could we expect to find in Regency society? A modest estate in Ireland was said to have paid £1,200 a year, enough to live on “comfortably”. Yet in 1815, just the cost of maintaining a stable for hunting could equal that amount. Jane Austen’s Bennett family lived on an entailed estate that paid £2,000 a year.

 Land was the greatest measure of wealth, and in the Regency period, most of the usable land was tied up in great estates held by the peerage and the landed gentry, so acquiring new land ownership was difficult to accomplish. Land provided the income, through the rents and profit-shares from tenant farmers. At least 10,000 acres were generally needed to yield the requisite £10,000 of income.

A quick survey of the holdings of modern-day descendants of peers from our period yields some insight. The family seat of the Earls of Pembroke (current one is the17th), for example, is Wilton House outside of Salisbury, with 16,000 acres. The Earl of Bathurst’s seat at Cirencester Park is 15,000 acres. Those are single holdings. The current Duke of Devonshire owns 70,000 acres in three counties, the 175-room Chatsworth, and a 200-room castle in Eire that the family rents out. The Duke of Argyll has 81,000 acres. The rents from owning land in London also provided a source of great wealth for some. The Portman riches stem from 100 acres of London real estate held since 1553.

What were other sources of wealth? Government or court appointments with a nice yearly stipend could supplement a rent-based income quite handsomely. There was no investing in a stock market as we know it today, but Miss Crawley in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, has £70,000 in the 5% funds, which were securities in the national debt (kind of like U.S. Treasury Bonds). This would have given her a yearly income of £3,500. Other investments, for the less well-to-do, were the consols, which paid 3% and were a set of annuities that had been consolidated into one fund. Brummel was said to have made £30,000/year with successful betting on horse races, until his luck turned against him.

How much was a pound worth? Sources vary on this, and equivalents are hard to fix, since modern life is so very different in most ways. How do you compare the cost-of-living? No one is buying carriages these days, and we aren’t using candles to light our homes. I have notes that say a Regency era pound was worth about $50 in 1990’s dollars, but I have also seen a valuation of $33 given for 1988 dollars, and more than twice as much elsewhere! If anyone has more recent figures, or different info, please share? If you use the $50 value, Darcy’s annual income was $500,000 –a handsome sum, to be sure, but far from princely. A man who had an income of £30,000, however, which many of the greater peerage did, had 1.5 million dollars coming in. Hm, maybe now in 2017, the $100= pound valuation does begin to look appropriate? Inflation!!

Taxes were perhaps the heaviest burden on the English populace. Such a vast array of daily necessities and features of good living were taxed, the ability to have or use them was itself a fine mark of one’s status. In The Magnificent Marquess, my heroine is impressed when she sees that Lord Milbourne, my hero, is extravagantly burning candles in his music room –during the day!! Everything from candles to soap was subject to taxation, including windows and servants. Male servants were subject to a higher tax than females. Employers paid a guinea per male servant (21 shillings, or £1.1), a tax instituted in 1777 and not lifted until 1937.

Servants were a necessity for the upper classes. Since a large country estate would include a sizeable house, plus park, gardens, stables, paddocks, and a home farm in addition to all the tenant farms, the army of servants required could be large. Blenheim was said to have employed 180 servants, including both indoor and outdoor. Lord Fitzwilliam employed 70 servants to keep Wentworth Woodhouse running. In the 18th century the “average” number of servants to keep a large country house running was 40.

The wealthiest landowners might own several estates in multiple counties, and while house servants might travel with them from site to site, the servants tending to the physical aspects of each estate stayed there to tend to their continuing duties, requiring a separate set of such workers for each estate. This would include stewards, gamekeepers, gardeners, parkkeepers, dairymaids, stablehands, and a minimal house staff, etc.

The cost of living fashionably in London varied, of course. The Duke of Northumberland might spend £10,000 to run his London establishment in 1810, but if you were of more modest means, like the Bennetts, the average cost of running a London townhouse would be about your entire income for the year, so you would rent one, and only when necessary.

The cost of maintaining a London house did not include such things as a season subscription to a box at the Royal Opera House, which could cost as much as £2,500 (I assume depending on the box location). A 3 month subscription to Almack’s for the weekly Wednesday night dinners with supper “only” cost 10 guineas, or £10.10, but was worth a great deal more in terms of social consequence!

That £10 doesn’t sound like much, but consider that a governess might only be paid about £12 per year (although she also received room and board); a Private in the military might only earn £7.7 per year after deductions for food and some other expenses. Compare the Bennett’s income to that of an average clergyman, who might be paid £150/year, or less. Curates might earn £50/year if they were fortunate. Compare that to Byron’s rent for his London lodgings, at 4 guineas per week, or about £230 a year.

Other trappings of wealth were also dear. A carriage could cost between 45 and 100 guineas ($2,475-$5,500 @ $50=pound), depending on the size and style; a pair of horses to pull that carriage could cost another 50-65 guineas. (Then you might also need a coachman to drive it.)   Renovations to a London house or country seat could run into hundreds of thousands of pounds: the Londonderrys spent £200,000 on Holdernesse House, and the Lambs spent £100,000 on Melbourne Park. Lavish entertaining was expected of the rich. In 1799 the Duke of Rutland turned 21 and spent £5,000 for food and entertainment for a 3-day celebration at Belvoir Castle.

If you’d like to read more, here are some additional sources for information of this sort:  (using the 1988 valuation, offers tables to compare Jane Austen characters’ incomes and wealth, by books, also offers a list of typical Victorian incomes. (excellent article focused on Sense & Sensibility, but also including links to additional articles)  (nice article contrasting Darcy and Bingley to explain their respective social status)

How rich are your characters, or favorite heroes and heroines you’ve read? How rich do you want your fantasy heroes to be, or don’t you care? Have any favorite anecdotes of Regency extravagance you want to share?



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