Iyntwood House and Centuries of Prudent Politics

To celebrate the cover reveal for DEATH OF A DISHONORABLE GENTLEMAN I thought it would be fun to concoct a history of the house featured in the novel.  Clearly from the cover Iyntwood House is a very grand building indeed; the sort of house that if it survived the deprivations of the last century would probably be owned by the National Trust today. So without more ado here is a little bit of background, such fun!

Geoffrey Talbot, a clerk at the Tudor Court of Henry VIII, was knighted for services to the crown and rewarded with the Iyntwood Houseland on which Maskwell Abby had stood before the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1541, when it was razed to the ground. It is thought that Talbot was part of Thomas Cromwell’s dissolution program which would account for his rapid rise in the court and for his being able to fund the building of what is today Iyntwood House which was completed in 1580.

During the Civil War, when many similar houses were levelled because of their owners’ Royalist support the Talbot family kept their heads, their lands and their house by providing a full Regiment of Horse for Cromwell’s New Model Army (1645) and so their magnificent home was spared.

Throughout the uncertain years following the Civil War the Talbots remained carefully moderate. But it was Talbot money that conspicuously supported Charles Stewart’s return to England (when his succession was assured and not before in 1661) to be crowned Charles II. The sum of money involved must have been considerable because despite Sir Gervase Talbot’s anti-royalist politics of the preceding years he was awarded a prominent position in Charles II’s court together with an elevation to the peerage as Earl of Montfort.

The House

Some of the best examples of Elizabethan architecture can be found at Iyntwood House: the large stone mullioned windows, with leaded light casements form a particularly handsome aspect to its façade below an ornate balustrade roofline. Within, the Great Hall which in earlier days would have been the center of activity is used today as a formal Iyntwood Long Drawing Roombanqueting hall and has a thirty-five foot high ceiling, supported by ten huge hammer beams. The original Jacobean tapestries and paintings still hang on its walls. Around 1600, a minstrels’ gallery was added to the ballroom, and in 1663 the small gallery was created to honor a visit by Charles II and Queen Catherine, who stayed overnight with their entire retinue and who had such a thoroughly good time they made many return visits.

By the early 19th century the 4th Earl considerably enriched by profits from the sugar trade, decided to ‘modernize’ Iyntwood House, and create more privacy within the original Elizabethan structure.. He employed the fashionable architect Sir Jeffry Wyatt, who introduced a sequence of splendid corridors so that reception rooms could be accessed without walking through one to the other. A new stable block and an orchid house and kitchen gardens were also built at this time.

The Iyntwood Hauntings

The Library is said to be haunted by an elderly gentleman dressed in a gold and buff padded dressing gown who habitually smokes Indian cheroots, a distinctly strong odor which pervades the library for days after a sighting. Other ghostly beings include the infamous Lady Sarah Talbot who unhappily treads the upstairs corridor known as ‘The Silver Lady’s Walk’. Crossed in love and locked up in her room by her husband for her many infidelities Lady Sarah’s ghost is still on the look-out for an admirer: Beware!

Royal Visitors

Royalty is no stranger to Iyntwood, Queen Elizabeth I was the first royal guest in 1574, although she did not apparently approve of the Countess, Lady Meredith Talbot and it was for this reason that the countess was encouraged to visit her family when Good Queen Bess came to Iyntwood.Iyntwood star guest King Charles II

The Restoration years were riotous and bountiful ones for Iyntwood. The Merry Monarch, Charles II, enjoyed the generous hospitality of Lord Talbot and made Iyntwood his haunt of pleasure during his reign. Charles and his court were lavishly entertained; plays and musical events were performed in the old Saxon moated castle on the estate, now a romantic ruin, and lavish picnics arranged in fleets of gondolas on the lake by the house. Almost financially ruined by the end of Charles II reign the Talbot family made a meteor-like rise to former financial splendor in the mid-18th century thanks to the burgeoning sugar trade in the West Indies.

Until his death in 1910 King Edward VII was a frequent visitor throughout his adult life as both Prince of Wales and monarch during the shooting season. On one occasion the king was fortunate to bag 1500 pheasant during a 3 day visit.

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Iyntwood and the Chocolate Challenge

Thanks to author Martine Bailey for inviting me to take part in her Chocolate Challenge in which we choose three of our favorite books and liken each to dark, milk or white chocolate. Martine is author of: An Appetite for Violets, a suspenseful tale of obsession, betrayal and food to be released in January 13, 2015 by Minotaur Books. I have read it and it’s a fascinating and beautifully told tale.

Cadbury's_Cocoa_advert_with_rower_1885

Here are three wonderful books that still stand the test of time chosen by characters from Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman each of them matched to the very distinct flavors of chocolate.

Grown Up Chocolate for a Dark and Bitter Tale – The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Never one for modern literature Mrs. Jackson, Iyntwood’s housekeeper, is a stickler for the classics. She is well into The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and simply can’t put it down! Written in 1859 this dark Victorian thriller and compelling melodrama has a tight plot riddled with betrayal, brutality to women, mistaken identity, murder, madness and love. Mrs. Jackson is particularly drawn to the book’s perspicacious and courageous heroine Marian Halcombe with whom she closely identifies. Marian with her sleuthing partner, drawing master Walter Hartright, pit themselves against the diabolical team of Count Fosco and Sir Percival Glyde to save Marian’s half-sister Laura Fairlie from their pitiless clutches.

Mrs. Jackson’s worst suspicions of married life are once again confirmed with Laura Fairlie’s victimization by her newly acquired husband the sinister Sir Percival Glyde, a villain only overshadowed in black-hearted doings by his partner in crime Count Fosco.

The Woman in White

Collins’s psychological thriller has never been out of print in the 140 years since its publication.

The Simple Unsophisticated Goodness of a Box of Cadbury’s Milk Tray – A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

Clementine Talbot, the Countess of Montfort, often indulges in a quiet afternoon on the lawn under the chestnut tree with a good book. This summer she is thoroughly enjoying a re-read of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View. Published in 1908 to both critical and popular acclaim, A Room with a View is a charming but nonetheless insightful comedy of manners that owes more to Jane Austen than perhaps any other of Forster’s works. The central character is a muddled, over-protected and rather spoilt young girl named Lucy Honeychurch, who runs from the man who stirs her emotions to become engaged to a pretentious snob, and then at the end of the story goes through a complete about face and marries for love. Its moral is as sweet and simple as a box of chocolates: throw away your etiquette book and listen to your heart!

Lady Montfort is entranced by the straightforward ease of this idea. She has one daughter left to marry-off and she is often bewildered by Althea’s determination to remain unattached and travel the world. She wonders if it would be best to allow Althea to accompany her friends on a trip up the Nile to Thebes instead of pushing her into repeating the London Season and perhaps into a marriage Althea might regret.

A Room with a View

 In Chapter Three of this book, coyly entitled “Music, Violets, and the Letter ‘S,’” the mysterious letter stands for a naughty word that is absolutely unutterable in the society Forster describes. What, you may ask, could this forbidden word possibly be? We begin to wonder what E.M. Forster’s really doing. Surely this sense of taboo indicates that this “Room” contains deep, dark, sexy depths? What does the letter S stand for? Stomach.

White Chocolate for a Great White Hunter – King Solomon’s Mines by Rider Haggard

Iyntwood’s butler, George Hollyoak, has both an extraordinarily sweet tooth and a taste for British imperialism in his reading that never cloys. It is Hollyoak’s love of all things Empire that prevents him reading anything published after the turn of the century and his small library is brimming with the works of Rider Haggard who never disappoints him. Hollyoak is currently in the grip of Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885) which in the butler’s opinion is the Most Amazing Book Ever Written. As he avidly follows the explorations of the great white hunter and man of derring-do, Allan Quatermain, who travels to Africa in search of ancient treasures and a lost fellow explorer, Hollyoak is transported from the prosaic safety of the Anglican Isles to a Continent Teaming with Savagery. King Solomon’s Mines is a veritable feast of action, suspense and Victorian romance that illuminates the politics of British imperialist capitalism and diamond mining in late nineteenth-century South Africa keeping the butler turning pages long into the night.

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When Haggard had become a successful novelist, he was contacted by a former love, Lilly Archer, née Jackson. She had been deserted by her husband, who had embezzled funds entrusted to him and fled, bankrupt, to Africa. Haggard installed Lilly and her sons in a house and saw to the children’s education. Lilly eventually followed her husband to Africa, where he infected her with syphilis before dying of it himself. Lilly returned to England in late 1907, where Haggard again supported her until her death on 22 April 1909.

Next up on the Chocolate Challenge are:

Ashley Weaver whose mystery Murder at the Brightwell, a delicious novel in which murder invades polite society and romance springs in unexpected places will be released by Minotaur Books in October 2014.

D.E. Ireland whose mystery Wouldn’t It be Deadly? a reimagining of George Bernard Shaw’s beloved characters Eliza Dolittle and Henry Higgins is sheer pleasure and will released by Minotaur Books on September 2014

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Elinor Glyn and the Tiger Skin

Elinor Glyn was a best-selling romance novelist whose fame peaked in the early 1900s. She wrote what were heavily criticized as novels of ‘questionable quality and taste’ at a time when Victoria’s rigid rules for fidelity were still strongly upheld by the middle classes, even though they had have been mislaid by certain members of the aristocracy. Elinor was writing racy novels when Britain was still suffering from an abundance of hypocrisy where sex was concerned,

Elinor’s risqué novel Three Weeks, published in 1907, described the romantic escapades of a young English nobleman. Banished to Switzerland, of all places, the lonely young milord meets a fascinating woman of older years; a mysterious Balkan princess in her early thirties with ‘eyes slumberous andEleanor Glyn inscrutable’ a ‘mouth straight and chiseled, and red, red, red’ and referred to throughout as ‘The Lady.’ The Lady initiates the young milord into the delights of carnal love and the two spend three intoxicating weeks together romping around on a tiger skin. By today’s standards it is all pretty tame stuff; there are far more pages devoted to The Lady’s declarations of affection for the young man coupled with puzzling requests and an ever-changing set of rules as she plays a cat and mouse game with a young man desperate to be ‘One’ with her. Mercilessly panned by critics as ‘immature rubbish for morons,’ or more simply put: ‘Squalid!’ Three Weeks flew off bookshop shelves and kicked up a tremendous rumpus among the moral and Anglican members of Edwardian England. Edward VII would not allow the book to be mentioned in his presence and boys at Eton were beaten if they were found reading it after lights out. Elinor’s career as a successful novelist was already established, but with Three Weeks she became a celebrity.

In earlier and more innocent days the young Elinor Sutherland had always wanted to be a writer – a poetic writer. She was still very young when she married the extraordinarily handsome Clayton Louis Glyn – his dark brown hair had been blown off in a gas explosion at his prep school and his now thick silver hair reminded Elinor of the powdered wigs of the 18th century. It was all ‘too romantic for words’ and Elinor married Clayton after a brief but ‘intoxicating’ courtship. During a honeymoon that was ‘to swoon for’, Clayton hired the Brighton swimming baths so he could watch the superb naked form of his wife as she swam up and down like a mermaid with her hip length red hair streaming behind her in the water. They spent the idyllic first years of their marriage squandering what little money Clayton had, or pretended to have, and ended up horribly in debt.

The marriage began to fall apart as Clayton succumbed to his more desperate eccentricities, one of which involved sitting up all night in anticipation of eating a pear at the precise moment it became ripe. Sinking deeper into debt Clayton transferred his obsession from ripening pears to brandy and as the bank refused to extend further loans, borrowed money from friends; running through funds at an alarming rate.

It was at this point that Elinor started to write novels. They were all a tremendous success with a large and loyal readership and earned her nice, fat royalties. But however quickly Elinor churned out best sellers she could not keep up with her spendthrift husband. Trapped in an unhappy marriage, and never one for fidelity (Three Weeks was apparently based on an affair she had had with a young aristocrat 16 years her junior) it was about this time that Elinor embarked on a tumultuous affair with Lord Curzon, the former Viceroy of India.

curzon tiger

Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India and his wife Lady Mary Curzon photographed with a tiger large enough to feature in Elinor’s best-seller Three Weeks

Among many interests Curzon was a member of the Souls; a group of young society pseudo-intellectuals with a taste for sophisticated high jinks and chancy lawn games when they met up at the end of the week at country house parties. At Waddesdon, Mentmore, Halton and Tring, they drove around in gilded carriages pulled by zebras; spent afternoons on the river scantily dressed in leopard skins and tinsel crowns, reading poetry out loud; or played lawn tennis in the buff. One young Soul, Diana Manners, arranged for two piglets to be taken aloft in an aero plane, to prove that indeed pigs could fly. The self-adoring and deeply affected Souls embraced Lord Curzon as one of them, but heartily disliked and excluded poor Elinor.

To her embarrassment Elinor was not invited to her lover’s house at Hackwood when Diana Manners and her soulful friends were there. She was invited after they left. She was not included in Curzon’s house parties for other important peers from the House of Lords either. Head over heels in love with Curzon, who she called her ‘universe’, it must have been wretchedly painful to be so disregarded by the man she loved so constantly. Meanwhile Clayton continued to burn through the money she earned and borrow from friends. And then Elinor learned to her horror that Curzon had made a loan to Clayton. Frantic that Clayton’s inevitable non-payment would end her affair with the man she so revered, she decided she must pay off Clayton’s debt to Curzon before it went bad.

Philip de Laszio's Elinor

Sketch of Elinor Glyn by Philip de Laszlo

In order to scrape together £1,000 (a sizeable sum at the time) she accepted an offer from the Daily Express to write 90,000 words that would be serialized by the newspaper. The result was a novel called The Reason Why, and was the sort of thing much loved by her many fans; a fast-paced, page-turner with all of Elinor’s hallmark elements: a handsome hero of aristocratic lineage, a beautiful pagan heroine with a proud and savage soul, a banker with a heart of gold, and a talented writer dying of consumption in a garret. It made Elinor writhe with shame every time she read it and she must have felt very far from ever producing a work of worthy literature. Predictably, The Reason Why was a hit; Elinor paid off her husband’s debt to Curzon and kept her unkind lover.

Still desperate for Curzon’s approval and striving for literary praise for a ‘serious book of worth’ Elinor now appears to have lost her head a bit. She embarked on her ‘serious work’ of fiction: Halcyone. Written to impress, it was heavily larded with authentic quotations kindly supplied by a professor of ancient Greek. Halcyone’s focal character who Elinor described as a selfish, unkind, egotistical and  ruthless misogynist who believed that only men had souls was remarkably like that of Lord Curzon, but somehow poor Elinor did not see this. Or perhaps deep down in her sub-conscious she rescued herself from Curzon’s clear disregard of her, by ending an affair with a man that however much she loved him, would only treat her badly and cause her pain. She gave Curzon her manuscript, which he read. He made a few grammatical corrections and returned it to his ex-mistress with no other comments.

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The Redoubtable Edwardian Housemaid and a Life of Service

Run was the operative word for the housemaid as she scuttled down the backstairs — the grand main staircase was strictly out of bounds — opened the shutters in the family drawing rooms, raked out and re-laid the fires, blacked and polished the fireplaces, tidied up the mess casually made the night before, spread the carpets with damp tea leaves to remove the dust, swept up the tea leaves, then moved on to the ­dining room to repeat the process. And after that there was still the library, the smoking room, the morning room and the study; the tapestry room, her ladyship’s sitting room; all of them must be immaculate before the family awoke at nine o’clock.  And when they came dowhousemaidsnstairs to start their day, the housemaid was back up the stairs to their bedrooms and dressing rooms to empty the slops from the chamber pots; clean and dust and make their beds. Finally, she carefully swept the grand ­staircase (the only time she was allowed to tread on it) and then, and only then, she had her breakfast. A long day devoted to cleaning had only just begun.

In 1911, a national ­census counted 1.3 million domestic servants, against 1.2 million workers in agriculture and 971,000 in coal mining. There were no trade unions for domestic service. 

Throughout her day there were more fires to lay and top up, rooms to be kept spotless, always keeping one step ahead of the family’s unspoken needs, always, if possible, out of sight, so that they could glide from one perfect setting to another with not a moment’s thought, as if the rooms tidied themselves. Most country houses were vast! There was a room for every possible activity, and each must be pristine.

It might be close to midnight before the butler signaled that the family — their every whim met from morning to night — had retired, and so could she and the rest of the exhausted household. Until five o’clock in the morning when it all began again.

This housemaid might be the third or fourth of a bevy of housemaids. Each one designated a position within the servants’ rigid hierarchy that came with its own particular duties. The first housemaid was the most senior and it was she who had the privilege of assisting any of the family’s daughters now ‘out’ in society in dressing, and also ‘maiding’ a guest staying Saturday to Monday who had not brought her ladies maid. The second housemaid’s duties included taking early morning tea to the butler and housekeeper in their rooms, a servant to the upper servants. The third and fourth housemaids’ duties were restricted to domestic chores only; sometimes as young as fourteen these girls were usually in training and given the most monotonous and mundane of jobs; just one peck in the order above the scullery maid.

Undoubtedly it was the scullery maid who was the most long-suffering individual below stairs. Penned up in a smelly scullery; bitterly cold in winter stifling in summer, she worked her way through mountains of washing-up. Lead-lined sinks were used for washing crystal and delicate china. A mixture of lye soap and fine sand to scour saucepans was cruelly hard on her hands. Scullery maids had to get up in the middle of the night to refuel the enormous kitchen range. They suffered from severe chilblains in winter and worked like mad to gain a position as a kitchen maid, promoted to assist in the kitchen peeling of mounds of vegetables, but anything was an improvement over the smell of drains and standing twelve hours a day on cold, flagstone floors.

At Welbeck Abbey the Duke of Portland had more than 60 staff in the house

In charge of the female servants was the housekeeper, the voice of her mistress below stairs. In most households the cook and her kitchen maids answered directly to the housekeeper, as well as all the housemaids. The quality of life for a female servant in a country house depended entirely on the temperament of the housekeeper. The male servants, the footmen and the hall-boy were under the footmenimmediate supervision of the butler. And it was the butler who called the shots throughout the entire servants’ hall; their leader and the household’s major domo. His pantry was the command ­center below stairs. It was here that the best plate and glass were kept, under his lock and key. The butler slept in his pantry – the better to guard the family silver. His footmen – all of them must be at least six feet tall, had rooms below stairs – far away from the girls lodged in the attic and to provide another layer of security to protect the house from interlopers and burglars.

Grandees were known to fire a butler who took a wife, on the grounds that his ­attention would wander

Housemaids, scullery maids and kitchen maids slept on the attic floor of the house. Two to a room, in some houses they even shared beds. Their rooms were furnished with the barest minimum with no regard to comfort: an iron bedstead and horsehair mattress, washstand, a chest to keep their clothes and pegs to hang their uniforms, a shared chamber pot under the bed. There was no lock on the housemaids’ bedroom door and the housekeeper or lady of the house might come into their rooms and check through their belongings at any time. One small window looking out onto the roof gave them some natural light, candles were issued by the housekeeper and there must be no neglectful waste. Housemaids rose when it was still dark, washed in cold water and dressed without benefit of light in their print dresses, usually gray, blue or lilac, their hair concealed underneath a white cap, their dresses kept clean by long heavy white aprons. At four o’clock in the afternoon they changed into a black dress and donned caps and aprons that were an excess of white starched frills. Once a week they were required to take a bath, usually on a Sunday – a tepid affair in a galvanized metal tub – it was only the senior housemaid who had fresh water and the privilege of the first bath. They all took turns, top to bottom and the poor old scullery maid bathed in something as unappealing as the water she washed the pans in all day.

Rules for female servants were as rigid as the hierarchy they belonged to. They led lives of enforced chastity denied boyfriends; marriage to a fellow servant was out of the question if they wished to remain in service to the family. Breakages were deducted from their wages. They might not smoke, speak in loud voices above stairs, must flatten themselves face against the wall should their employers appear, and might not address the family unless they were spoken to first. If somehow they managed to get pregnant they were immediately turned out of the house without a character to join the ranks of the unemployed.

Female servants who had lost their jobs because they became pregnant  accounted for 60% of prostitutes in Edwardian England.  

Page boy: Where shall I put this ‘ere dish of ammonds? Butler: I’m surprised Harthur, that at your hage, yew ‘ave not learned to put the Har in Harmonds.

In a time when everyone had a servant, there are horrendous descriptions of the sort of diet servants existed on that did little to fuel them for their long hours of labor. But in most country houses of the affluent aristocracy the servants’ food was plain, simple and plentiful and strangely enough ale was provided throughout the working day. Astute servants need not spend a penny. They could save all their wages, and many did just that. Service was not a last resort but much sought-after employment, especially with a family of consequence. Many servants took pride in working for the country’s elite, and there existed a tremendous entrenched snobbery among the top families’ servants often far greater than that of the family itself.

By today’s standards theirs appears to have been a bleak existence with very little to recommend it! But there were planned outings and special occasions, even if to us they seem negligible and spare. Walking to the village church dressed in their Sunday best was a delightful change from the claustrophobic atmosphere of the servants’ hall and if the weather was inclement they were driven there and back in the estate’s wagons. They were given time off to watch the house cricket match between villagers and the male servants and family members of the house often with a picnic lunch laid on. They lobbed balls at the coconut shy and guessed the weight of prize vegetable marrows at the church fete in summer. At Christmas there was a servants’ hall celebration with roast turkey, all the trimmings and a tree. Gifts from the family were laid out under the Christmas tree in the great hall for residential servants and estate workers alike. Once a year some country houses even had a servants’ ball, and the family would attend for a few hours.

 

 

 

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Redoubtable Historical Novelists of the 21st century!

 

Thank you to Julian Bell author of Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, a historical thriller set in Dublin in 1920 and writer of the very entertaining blog: Lifelong Londoner  for his invitation to me to take part in a blog tour, in which writers take turns to answer the same four questions about their writing, and then pass the questions on to another writer.

What are you working on?

My debut historical mystery Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman in The Countess and Mrs. Jackson series is now in production and releases in January 2015!  The next step in this fascinating journey to publication for me as a first timer  is that in the next few months the art department at Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press will show me what they have dreamt up for the jacket cover.

In the meantime my second book in the series A Party for Winston is well underway for publication in January 2016.  The story opens in London at a fashionable dinner party thrown to celebrate Winston Churchill’s 39th birthday. After the gentlemen have finished their port and leave the dining room  to join the ladies, one of them is found, by the butler, face down among the walnut shells littering the table with a knife in hisBritishEmpire ribs.

A guest at the party, Lady Montfort is drawn immediately into unraveling a mystery that involves the country’s current paranoia and obsession with German espionage, as half of the government press forward with plans for an unavoidable war with Germany and the other half do everything they can to avoid it.

All of smart London society is busy enjoying the opera, ballet and theatre season as it readies itself for Christmas. Lady Montfort, well connected and invited everywhere, is in a perfect position to unravel the web of secrecy and subterfuge, both real and imagined, at this perilous time. She also personally confronts her fears for her son Harry Talbot, Viscount Haversham, and his determination to join Winston Churchill’s newly formed Royal Naval Air Service as a reconnaissance pilot – should there be war.

As Lady Montfort makes Montfort House her headquarters for the winter season, she sends for her level headed housekeeper, Edith Jackson, and together the two women piece together the events that took place on the night of Winston’s party.

 

 

How does your work differ from others of the same genre?

 

I wanted to write a story that captured the extraordinary wealth and extravagance of the time as well as the social upheaval in a country and era when class mattered to an almost ludicrous degree. There was a tremendous gap between the haves and the have nots in England before the Great War, and I wanted my two women sleuths to be representative with contrasting backgrounds.

Clementine Elizabeth Talbot, the Countess of Montfort, is perched almost at the top of the tree; her father was the Governor General for Madras, and her husband is one of the richest landowning peers in England. So Clementine embodies both colonial  Empire and the landed aristocracy. The Talbots lead a life of boundless luxury and privilege, but truly believe in their responsibilities as stewards of the land they are privileged to own. Clementine leads a pretty carefree existence and enjoys a lifestyle that was to completely disappear in England with the outbreak of the war in 1914.

Edith Jackson is from the laboring classes, raised in a parish orphanage to become a working skivvy in a middle class house at fourteen. She has taught herself to read and write and struggles for a better life. When the story starts she has made it to the top of her profession and is deeply proud of her status as the Talbot’s housekeeper for their beautiful country house Iyntwood. As a result of her humble background Mrs. Jackson is a far greater snob and much more conventional than Lady Montfort.

I didn’t want the series to be a history lesson, but accurate historical details, and the history of the time is very important to me. I have always admired the writers E.F. Benson, P.G. Wodehouse and Nancy Mitford, so I hope I have mingled historical elements and fiction in the lighthearted style of the time; where people are set up to be made gentle fun of. After all, there is nothing more enjoyable than laughing about the pomposity and self-importance of the overly conventional – especially when they are English.

 

Why do you write what you do?

 

I am fascinated by the early 1900s. The Edwardian era was a sort of see-saw period; a time of contrast without the heavy handed morality and pomposity of the preceding Victorian era, but still hidebound in its rigid class demarcations.

A strong Liberal Government was making great strides with social welfare reforms and the working people had found a voice through socialist leaders and trade unionists, especially those in the larger towns and cities. In Parliament, the House of Lords had been stripped of its power of veto so that the Peoples’ Budget could be passed to accommodate reforms for the laboring classes, but at the same time there were many aristocrats in government who led the country forward to a better life for the working poor. This sort of conflict struck me as a perfect background for an elegant, historical mystery series.

Many of the Edwardian upper classes were quite outrageous and extraordinarily self-indulgent, but they thoroughly enjoyed themselves and were up for anything, which makes for great country house storytelling. And even with entrenched social conformity across all classes, there were dozens of captivating eccentrics who populated the era and who I write about in my blog: Redoubtable Edwardians.

 

How does your writing process work?

 

I truly believe that ‘bum glue’ as Elizabeth George calls it, is key. If you don’t sit down and focus on the business of writing every day nothing is going to happen. All the writing workshops, writers groups and conferences are useful, though they are no substitute for hard slog. My next aphorism ‘revision is the writer’s best friend’ (and I can’t remember who I am quoting here) is just as vitally important.

So far as process is concerned, I dream up ideas for a story and mull them over as I weed the garden, cook lunch and fold laundry. Then I write up a brief synopsis and plot out a story line. This doesn’t mean I stick to it because I often don’t, but it helps me in the process, so I don’t get to the middle of the novel and feel insecure about what happens next. I write biographies for my characters: what they look like; what they think, do, like and dislike, and when these people really ‘live’ for me and I feel I know them. I sit down and write the story.  This is the most fun part. Then its revise, edit and polish over and over until the story feels smooth.  Oh, and somewhere in there when I think I might be done, I put the whole thing aside for at least six weeks.  When I return I discover all the glaring mistakes and the unnecessary bits…and it is usually at this moment that however much I sometimes love a bit I have written, if it doesn’t work to push the story forward I reluctantly let it go.

Enough about me! I would like to introduce Anna Lee Huber who I have long admired as the Award-Winning and National Bestselling Author of the Lady Darby Mystery Series. She was born and raised in a small town in Ohio, and graduated summa cum laude from Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN with a degree inA Grave Matter rev w quote - FinalAnna_Lee_Huber_Headshot_1 music and a minor in psychology. She currently resides in Indiana, and when not working on her next book she enjoys reading, singing, traveling and spending time with her family. Her latest novel, A Grave Matter, Lady Darby Book 3 releases on July 1st, 2014.

 

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Clementine Talbot, Countess of Montfort

Thanks to Lyndsy Spence of The Mitford Society’s invitation to write a blog for ‘Meet My Main Character,’ I have the opportunity to introduce Redoubtable Edwardian: Clementine Talbot, Countess of Montfort the shining star of my novel:  ‘Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman.’
Latour4

1.  What is the name of your character? Is she fictional or a historic person?

Clementine Elizabeth Talbot, The Countess of Montfort is a figment of my imagination.

2. When and where is the story set?

England, at Iyntwood the country estate of the Earl of Montfort.  In the particularly lovely month of June in 1912.

3. What should we know about her?

That she has reached that wonderful time in a woman’s life when her children are grown and busy about their own lives. At 42 Clementine is in her prime with handsome, good looks that have worn reasonably well over the years; her vitality is probably her most attractive quality.

Clementine has a great life: she has a wonderful relationship with her husband; lives in one of the most beautiful country houses in England and is a busy and purposeful woman with a passion for gardening. A pretty lucky woman by any era’s standards!

Curious, involved and very much aware of what is going on around her in an age famed for its entrenched snobbery and obsession with class and status, Clementine is fully conscious of her position in society, but has the wit and intelligence to transcend the rigid formality and constraints of being the wife of an aristocrat. Probably her greatest flaw is that she is often impatient, restless and even at her age, impetuous. She can also be a bit willful if she is thwarted.

4. What is the main conflict? What messes up her life?

Black sheep: murdered and otherwise; a bungled police investigation which threatens to lead to the arrest of Clementine’s son; a runaway housemaid with nowhere to run to; and the disappearance of a wayward young woman who is a guest in her house. All are elements which seriously conspire to ruin Clementine’s house party to celebrate her annual summer ball.

5. What is the personal goal of the character?

Clementine breaks all the rules by conducting her own investigation into the murder of her husband’s nephew. She also ropes in her housekeeper to help her. Two serious no-nos for a woman of her position. Along the way she discovers more about her friends’ lives than she wishes to and forms a friendship with her servant, Edith Jackson.

6. Is this a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

‘Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman,’ will be published in January 2015 by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press.

 

 

 

 

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Gladys, Marchioness of Ripon and a Night at the Opera

Constance Gladys, Marchioness of Ripon was six feet tall and considered to be a stunner; she was so beautiful that even the most glamorous in her company looked like they needed ‘a touch of the sponge and the duster,’ according to the writer E.F. Benson.

Lady Ripon dressed as Cleopatra for a costume ball at Devonshire House

Lady Ripon dressed as Cleopatra for a costume ball at Devonshire House. Photographed in the style of Van Dyck’s 1623 portrait of Marchesa Elana Grimaldi

Lady Ripon was a close friend of Oscar Wilde, who dedicated his play A Woman of No Importance to her, which just goes to show what a bright spark she was in the first place. Other celebrated friends included the opera singer Nellie Melba, whose success in London was largely due to Lady Ripon’s support.

In her younger days, as Lady de Grey, Gladys thought nothing of spending $5,000 on an outfit for a fancy dress ball at Devonshire House. Her Cleopatra costume was made in Paris and it included an elegantly dressed black slave in full attendance when she made her entrance.

Her first marriage had been rather horrid; her husband the Earl of Lonsdale, who even by the standards of the day was considered to be sexually incontinent, had died of a heart attack while busily engaged in enjoying his own private brothel. Lady Ripon was hardly a paragon of Edwardian virtue, in her youth she was certainly a very active young woman, but she managed her affairs as discretely as was necessary.  She next married the exceedingly rich Marquess of Ripon and was lucky enough to live in the incomparable Studley Royal, a perfect Palladian jewel of a house surrounded by beautiful gardens and with the exquisite ruins of Fountains Abbey in its grounds.But Lady Ripon was a sophisticated individual and preferred not to isolate herself in North Yorkshire with only country sports and the limited topics of horses, dogs and guns for conversation. She set up house at Coombe Court in Kingston so she could be on hand for her pet project the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

The Marchioness did not possess a tremendous sensitivity or appreciation for music. In fact as the writer, E. F. Benson, laughingly remarked, she would have appreciated a Beethoven symphony so much more if she had been a personal friend of the composer. What Gladys most admired about the opera was that it was an opportunity for the rich and titled to get together for a full blown evening of pageantry. She was a natural entrepreneur, as the account books for the opera house testified over the coming years, and so she made a huge success out of promoting a night at the opera. The music itself was incidental, as long as it was superbly performed by the best musicians and the greatest singers of the day. It was the drama, the lavish sets and the splendid sense of occasion that truly appealed to Lady Ripon and probably to most of society.

In one season she revitalized the half empty opera house and, with the help of her friend Sir Thomas Beecham, made it one of the main events of the London season, second only to Royal Ascot and Cowes week. Even Edward VII, notorious for his love of music hall tunes and female comedy turns like Little Titch, was a dedicated fan. He might not have been present for the entire performance when he attended an opening night; usually disappearing during the intermezzo for a twelve course dinner and baccarat.  But faultlessly dressed; accompanied by beautiful women with cascades of diamonds covering their ample, snowy décolleté; and his rich and influential banker friends he took center stage in the royal box, a prominent and enthusiastic opera-goer.

Having rescued the opera from financial ruin and promoted the success of one of its super-stars Nellie Melba for many seasons, Lady Ripon suddenly found herself at a loose end. She was stuck, bored and in need of a new ‘stunt’ as she liked to call it. And it was at this point that she contributed her piece de resistance to both Covent Garden, the London season of 1911 and the coronation of Britain’s new King and Emperor, George V.

It was the exotic and rather flamboyant Ballet Russe, discovered by Lady Ripon and invited to London that summer to perform in front of the new king and queen on the evening before the coronation, which swept society off its feet that year. Lady Ripon organized a truly gala event. None of the illustrious company gathered together at the Royal Opera House that evening was quite prepared for the spectacle that was the Russian Ballet and Vaslav Nijinsky. Thousands of roses decorated the tiers of the boxes in which the audience sat dazzled by the magnificent sets and vivid costumes, and then Nijinsky leapt onto the stage, wearing only a tight, skin-colored silk tricot onto which were sewn hundreds of pink and red silk petals for his performance of Spectre de la Rose. For once it was the actual performance that enthralled. Nijinsky’s magnificent, soaring leaps were so electrifying that women were reduced to tears at the sight of the Russian dancer.

Up until the arrival of the Ballet Russe, ballet had been a rather half hearted spectacle, there was no choreography to speak of,  and as one critic put it ‘just uneven lines of scruffy little girls in fluffy skirts and block shoes barely keeping up with the music as the entire corps de ballet scanned the audience for wealthy admirers.’ the Russian ballet started a new fashion of Bakst inspired vibrant colors, and it became awfully chic to lounge around in scarlet and pink chiffon Turkish trousers in a boudoir made over to look like an Ottoman seraglio. Ballet would never be the same again and it was the remarkably clever and glamorous Marchioness of Ripon who had so resourcefully had a hand in its change.

 

 

 

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Death of a Dishonorable Gentlemen

Death of a Dishonorable Gentlemen will be released by Minotaur Books, St. Martin’s Press January 6, 2015.

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A Party for Winston

A Party for Winston. The second book in the series to be released in January 2016.

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Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon and the Dress of Emotion

madam lucileLucile, Lady Duff-Gordon is possibly more infamously known for the scandal surrounding her escape from the Titanic in an almost empty lifeboat with her secretary and her husband Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon. The three of them were among twelve people in a boat that could have packed in at least forty. Criticism after the disaster suggested that Sir Cosmo boarded the emergency boat ignoring the chivalrous ‘women and children first,’ code, and the Duff-Gordon’s life boat failed to return, after the Titanic sank, to rescue those still struggling in the water. What made matters more complicated was that Sir Cosmo had generously offered the crew in his life boat compensation, a gift of five pounds apiece, to replace the kit they had lost when the boat sank. After a protracted court-room session the British Board of Trade’s inquiry into the disaster accepted Sir Cosmo’s denial that he had offered a bribe, as there was no evidence to the contrary, but Duff-Gordon never quite recovered from the scandal.

Lady Duff-Gordon, however, was made of far sterner stuff. Unlike her husband she did not retire crushed by public opinion from society. She displayed the same strength of purpose and entrepreneurial focus that had helped become the most successful English dress designer of the early 1900s, and the owner of Maison Lucile, an internationally famous brand of its day in London, Paris and New York.

Left a near-penniless single mother and divorcée by the collapse of her first marriage, Lucile Wallace began her fashion career cutting out dresses on the floor of her house and then using her connections in society built a list of clientele that represented the rich and titled wives of the aristocracy. The super-rich wives of the arriviste flocked to her salon for her dresses and her instruction on how to walk, dress, act and speak as if they had been born to the privileged life their husbands’ had acquired. She dressed society’s matrons, their daughters and their husband’s courtesans. In later life she said she believed her success was due to her instinctive ability to design a gown to suit the personality of its wearer. Her versatility as a designer was boundless: she designed seductive tea-gowns, dainty little dresses for debutantes and sophisticated models that looked like the last word in wickedness. And when she had all of society coming to her salon for their gowns and dresses, she designed a line of lingère that made their husband’s eyes pop!

These were the days of the great courtesans for whom men ruined themselves, the days when a man would order a thousand guinea sable coat as a peace offering to his mistress after a slight quarrel. Dressed in soft, flowing tea gowns, with no corsetry to obstruct the business of undressing, women discarded the cumbersome underclothing of Victorian and early Edwardian era for flimsy delicate little nothings made of sheer silk and lace especially created for the fashionable hours of cinq a sept, when married women entertained their lovers.

Maison Lucile’s fitting rooms in Hanover Square were part of a luxurious private house furnished in classic style where Lucile’s clients could relax in elegant rooms carefully strewn with lovely accessories to complement the clothes she had made for them. The lingère boudoir had an ornate gilt bed, once owned by Marie Antoinette, to give the right atmosphere for choosing pretty underclothes and diaphanous sleepwear.

And it was from these pleasant afternoons that the idea for the fashion show was born. For Lucile’s was the first house in London or Europe to use a live mannequin in a fashion parade; Lady Duff-Gordon invented the catwalk. Most of her mannequins were working girls each picked for her startling good looks. Lucile taught her girls to walk with unhurried grace and languid poise; she rehearsed them until they were perfect. Then she designed gowns for them, gowns that complemented their individual physical characteristics as well as their personalities.

Once she had created her season’s collection, she went about setting the right scene for her fashion parade. The lighting was romantic, but clear enough to be able to see her girls; the epitome of voluptuous glamor, demure grace, or languid beauty, as they modeled the clothes on a miniature stage with misty olive chiffon curtains. She created what she called ‘gowns of emotion’ and gave each a luscious and evocative name: “When Passion’s Thrall is Over,” “Red Mouth of a Venomous Flower,” and best of all: “The Sighing Sound of Lips Unsatisfied.”

And when all was ready, she sent out pretty invitation cards, keeping the illusion that she was inviting friends to a party at Hanover Square house. Within six months of starting her fashion parades Lucile doubled her clientele, and nearly trebled her revenue.

This remarkably temperamental and dynamic woman thrived at a time when it was unacceptable for the upper classes to earn an income from trade, unthinkable for a lady to make her own living. In 1900 she married Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, landowner and sportsman. But despite marriage to a baronet she could never be presented at court because she was not just a successful business woman, but a woman who had worked to become one. She opened salons in New York and Paris and took business away from the top fashion houses in Paris; designed theatrical costumes for the stars of the day; wrote a fashion column, and became confidante to society’s elite on both sides of the Atlantic.

She was on her way to her salon in New York when the Titanic collided with an iceberg sending over 1,500 souls to the bottom of the sea. But she survived and continued to create exquisite clothing, her salons flourished and her business grew. The beginning of the Great War in 1914 put a temporary halt to the extravagance of haute couture and when the war ended the new fashions were a far cry from Lucile’s wafty, delicate dresses and her popularity as a designer diminished.

 

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