Pages

Friday, December 3, 2021

Not Austen's London

I stumbled onto Andrea Penrose’s Wrexford & Sloane series through an Amazon recommendation and decided to give it a whirl. I ripped through it in a couple of days and immediately read the rest of the series. Having enjoyed Wrexford & Sloane so much, I’m currently working my way through another, loosely related series by the same author—this one featuring Lady Arianna Hadley and the Earl of Saybrook. We talk about both in my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction


The series opens with Murder at Black Swan Lane, which features a brutal murder in a London church, ca. 1811, committed over the possession of a book by someone identified only as the “Golden One.” Charlotte Sloane—a young artist who supports herself under the pen name A.J. Quill—arrives in time to produce a detailed sketch of the body but flees the scene when the Bow Street Runners arrive.


Switch to the next morning, when the Earl of Wrexford roars with outrage to discover, first, that A.J. Quill has ridiculed him yet again over his romantic liaisons and, second, that there’s a Bow Street Runner on the doorstep convinced that the earl has committed murder. Why? Because the victim in the church turns out to be a clergyman who has been conducting an escalating and vitriolic public feud with Wrexford, known throughout the city for his hair-trigger temper and his absolute refusal to tolerate fools gladly.

In Regency England, peers can be tried only in the House of Lords, so Wrexford is not in immediate danger of being hauled off to Newgate Prison. But sufficient evidence will doom even the highest nobleman to conviction and execution. So the hunt is on for the killer, with Wrexford forced to ally with the one person who seems to have his—or is it her?—finger on the pulse of criminal London: A.J. Quill, aka Charlotte Sloan.

The series continues with Murder at Half Moon Gate, Murder at Kensington Palace, Murder at Queen’s Landing, and (as of September) Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens. Through each book, Charlotte’s and Wrexford’s relationship deepens as more of their past, especially hers, comes to light. The characters are complex, the plots challenging, and the solutions satisfying. But what really sets this series apart is its rich and varied portrayal of Regency London itself and its focus on the scientific developments of the period, which paved the way for life as we know it. This is the London of Jane Austen’s time, but it is not the London depicted in Austen’s novels. 

As ever, the rest of this post comes from the New Books Network.


Great Britain’s Regency Era (1811–1820) has long been wildly popular as a subject of historical fiction yet overly focused on the romance genre. The towering figures of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer have tended to dominate the field to the point where even novels that are not primarily romances exist within Austen’s world.

But as we can see from Andrea Penrose’s  Wrexford & Sloane mystery series, far more was going on during the Regency than parties and marriage politics. Penrose’s London is a gritty place filled with canny urchins, men and women of science, engineers and international businessmen, gamblers and disgraced lords and satirists who make their living off the foibles and follies of the well-to-do.

One such satirist is Charlotte Sloane—a young artist who writes under the pen name A.J. Quill. Her network of contacts—including the two urchins who live with her, known as Raven and Hawk—proves invaluable in untangling a series of murders, the first of which Bow Street is all too eager to blame on the Earl of Wrexford. She and Wrexford become reluctant partners, then friends, and by the time we reach book 5, Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens, they are planning their wedding.

Wrexford is an acclaimed amateur chemist, an interest that brings him into contact with most of London’s scientific elite and accounts for his and Charlotte’s attendance at a symposium being held at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. The death of a prominent botanist, visiting from the United States (then at war with Britain), is first written off as the result of a weak heart. But certain clues point to murder, and Wrexford and Sloane’s friends and family urge them to investigate. They soon realize this crime may have international implications, and the hunt for the killer is on.

As with the Lady Sherlock mysteries, it’s best to read this series from beginning to end, as each book develops Charlotte’s and Wrexford’s relationship, revealing new insights into their past. The characters are fascinating, the plots fast-paced and complex, and the settings richly described. If you’ve been avoiding novels set in the Regency because you associate the era with pale and predictable romances, this series will open your eyes.

Image: The Great South Sea Caterpillar, Transformed into a Bath Butterfly (1795), James Gillray’s satirical portrait of Sir Joseph Banks, a famous botanist whose contributions to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew are mentioned in several of the Wrexford & Sloane novels, including Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens; public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Battling Prejudice

One of the things that historical novels do well is putting a human face—and, perhaps more important, human feelings—on difficult issues that plagued the past and often continue to influence the present. One such problem, which changes its superficial characteristics from one setting to another but never really seems to go away, is the tendency for in groups to discriminate against out groups, however those are defined.

Some types of discrimination are, of course, far more toxic than others. When prejudice is used to justify the murder of individuals or entire racial or religious groups, we witness humanity at its worst. This week’s New Books in Historical Fiction conversation with Dana Mack explores trends in late nineteenth-century Germany that in time gave rise to the Holocaust. In particular, she examines the paradox of the Wilhelmine era, when the emperor’s Jewish subjects were assimilating into and welcomed by society even as that same society marked them indelibly as outsiders because of their faith. Through the love story of Lisi and Wilhelm, we see both the factors contributing to and the destructive aspects of this societal conflict.


As usual, the rest of this post comes from the New Books Network.


Despite all the attention paid to the two world wars of the twentieth century, not a great deal of historical fiction focuses on the period that preceded them. Dana Mack’s debut novel, All Things That Deserve to Perish, is an exception. Through its depictions of Berlin high society, the Junkers from the agricultural estates of old Prussia, and interfaith marriages, the novel explores the fraught transition to a modern, commercial economy that simultaneously promoted and complicated relations between Germans at all levels of society and their Jewish fellow citizens.

Mack focuses her story on Elisabeth von Schwabacher, the daughter of a successful Jewish financier who has just returned from Vienna to her parents’ home in Berlin when the book opens. Lisi, as she’s known, has been training as a classical pianist, and her great ambition is to perform in concert halls and private soirĂ©es.

Or is it? Lisi’s mother pushes the conventional future of wife and mother and rigorously oversees a diet and makeover program to ready Lisi for society, but neither of her parents wants to force their daughter into marriage, especially to a non-Jewish man. It’s Lisi herself who encourages the attentions of two noblemen, both to some extent fortune hunters—the widowed Prince Egon von Senbeck-Wittenbach and the impoverished Junker Count Wilhelm von Boening. And Lisi is also the one who decides, when her parents press her to choose, to start an affair with one of her suitors without considering how that may constrain her future.

The casual antisemitism expressed by many of the characters in this book is almost more jarring than the occasional outbursts of hatred and bigotry. But it is both true to the times and revealing of the fundamental social rifts in Wilhelmine Germany that, less than fifty years later, would explode in the horrors of Auschwitz and Treblinka.

Images: Narrow-gauge train from a Pomeranian railroad, operating since 1895, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Franz von Lenbach, Bismarck in Retirement (1895), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


Friday, November 19, 2021

Interview with Nicola Cornick

One of the historical mysteries—by that I mean an actual event that still provokes competing explanations more than five hundred years after the fact—that has always intrigued me is the controversy over Richard III’s role in the deaths of his young nephews, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York. From the day I read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, retrieved from my parents’ bookshelf when I was still in high school, I’ve been generally sympathetic to the idea that Richard was framed.

I’m not completely convinced: decades of studying the complicated politics of the Russian court at around the same time convince me that an uncle might, in fact, murder his nephews to take the throne—no doubt telling himself he was acting for the good of the country. A similar situation, after all, forms the backdrop to my Legends of the Five Directions novels, most notably The Golden Lynx and The Vermilion Bird. But my jury remains out to the point where I’m always ready to entertain a new approach to the subject, especially in fiction.

Even so, I could never have come up with the solution proposed by Nicola Cornick in her latest novel, The Last Daughter of York, released this week by Graydon House. To discover what that is, you’ll have to read the book. But to find out more, read on for her answers to my questions.

As you note on your website, each of your novels features an old house with a story. How do you find these houses?

Since I was a small child, I have loved visiting historic houses of all sorts, large and small, ancient and less so, and I find that whenever I do they always have a story to tell—of the people who have lived there, and the things that have happened over the centuries. Each house is different and has its own individual story to tell, and I love uncovering and sharing it.

In The Last Daughter of York, that house is Minster Lovell. What do readers need to know about the house itself? What drew you to writing about it?

Minster Lovell Hall is a ruin now and a very picturesque one, standing beside the little River Windrush, with a dovecote and ancient cottages nearby. It was the ancestral home of the Lovell family for generations and the place where Francis Lovell entertained King Richard III for Christmas during his short reign. In those days it was a grand, and modern, house. What drew me to writing about it was that five hundred years later you can still stand on the spot where all these events occurred and imagine what it must have been like in the fifteenth century. Minster Lovell has a very strong atmosphere. You feel as though you can almost touch the past there.

The story opens in the thirteenth century, with John Lovell and his young bride—whose past, to borrow a modern phrase, he probably should have researched a little more than he did. This is the setup for the entire novel, so please give us a capsule description of what happens in that first scene.

The first scene is based on the legend of the Mistletoe Bride, which is a very well-known local story. John Lovell thinks he is marrying a rich and beautiful young heiress, but in fact she is a thief who has tricked her way into his affections in order to steal a priceless artifact that has been in the care of the Lovell family for generations. Known as the lodestar, it has a reputation for powerful magic, including the ability to make people disappear…. At the wedding, as everyone is enjoying the feast and celebrations, John discovers too late that his bride has cheated him and that she and the stone are gone.

We next switch to the perspective of Serena, a young woman from the twenty-first century who lives in the UK but, when we meet her, is enjoying a well-deserved vacation in California. What can you tell us about her?

Serena has my dream job, which is to run a company offering heritage tours to British historical sites! She used to have a twin sister, Caitlin, and the two of them were very close when they were younger but started to drift apart in when they got into their later teens. Then Caitlin disappeared, and Serena’s life has to a large degree been shaped by that one event and how she has dealt with it in the following ten years.

Serena’s peace is soon interrupted by news from home. What calls her away?

Serena’s parents call to let her know that Caitlin’s body has been found and that she needs to come home. This is the start of a series of events that helps Serena uncover not only the mystery of what happened to Caitlin but the very unexpected links between her own family and events five hundred years before during the reign of King Richard III.

The third perspective comes from Lady Anne Neville, whom we first encounter in 1465, when she’s just five years old. Unlike the others, she is a historical character, and hers is the “unknown woman from history” tale at the heart of the book. Why did you choose to interweave her story with Serena’s, rather than focus on one or the other?

I love writing stories where there is a historical mystery at the heart which is then solved in the present. In the case of The Last Daughter of York it’s Serena who holds the key to the mystery of the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower in 1483 and it is Anne who is the heroine of that particular story. Telling their two stories together was so much fun because they are two strong women five hundred years apart but whose lives have so many parallels.

 

And what do we need to know about Lady Anne and her husband, Lord Francis Lovell?

Francis Lovell was the closest friend of King Richard III and is a fascinating historical figure, renowned for his loyalty to Richard and the Yorkist cause in the Wars of the Roses. His wife, Anne, was a member of the powerful and influential Neville family. Like a lot of women from the footnotes of history, there isn’t a lot about Anne in the written record, yet you can piece together aspects of her story from letters and accounts. She lived at such a tumultuous time and saw and experienced great events of history. It was amazing to be able to write those events from her perspective.

And what of you? This novel has just come out. Are you already working on something new?

I’ve just completed my next book, which is another dual-time story, this one set in the late sixteenth century in the years leading up to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. There have been a lot of books about the plotters themselves, but I was interested in exploring the stories of the women who knew them, and the book is seen through the perspective of Robert Catesby’s mother, Anne, and his wife, Catherine. The modern-day story is about a woman who uncovers a Tudor garden created by Catherine Catesby.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Nicola Cornick, a historian raised in the north of England, has become an international and award-winning bestseller. She now writes dual-timeframe novels inspired by the history and legends of Wessex and the Vale of the White Horse. Her latest novel is The Last Daughter of York, released in November 2021. You can find out more about her at https://www.nicolacornick.co.uk.

Image of St. Kenelm’s Church, Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire, England © Alison Rawson, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Entree to the Bridgerton World

I no longer remember how I came across Julia Quinn’s The Duke and I. It was 2000 or 2001, a time when Amazon existed but was not yet the behemoth it is today, and I lived next to a college town with three to four bookstores nearby. Most likely, I found it browsing at the local Borders, which sat opposite my favorite grocery store and where I spent a lot of time. Books have always been my preferred form of relaxation, and even the Internet’s breadth of offerings can’t really equal the pleasure of browsing in a physical bookstore.

Be that as it may, I found The Duke and I, enjoyed it, and moved on. Indeed, over the next two decades I shifted away from the historical romance genre altogether, so I had little sense of the popularity the later books were achieving. I had more or less forgotten about that long-ago read when I logged into Netflix one day last year and saw an ad for Bridgerton, the TV series based on the books. I watched a few episodes, then hunted down the first book and re-read it.

The differences between Quinn’s Daphne and the version in the Shondaland series struck me as interesting. I began pursuing the idea of interviewing Julia Quinn about her series as a whole, and in preparation, I read the other seven books, as well as at least one prequel and the latest offering: The Wit and Wisdom of Bridgerton, which Avon Books released this past Tuesday. Another Bridgerton-derived title, a graphic novel of Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron, is due for release in January. According to rumors circulating on the Internet, Netflix will release the second season of Bridgerton early next year, and seasons 3 and 4 are already in the planning stages. That single novel from 2000 has become a juggernaut.

At some point, I still hope to interview Quinn for New Books in Historical Fiction, but that plan has been delayed for reasons that have nothing to do with the books. So instead I’m offering this brief look at The Wit and Wisdom of Bridgerton, which does an excellent job of capturing the series’ strengths and offering quick reminders of or introductions to the main characters.

So what does set the Bridgerton series apart? For me, the best part is the dialogue, which often sparkles with wit at the same time it offers insight into the characters. The Happy Ever After ending required of romances set in any period means that there’s little doubt about who will end up with whom—the fun lies in discovering how they get there—and heated love scenes can become repetitive when you read eight books in a row. But lines like “I do love my family, but I really just go for the food” (Colin) or “Men, [Daphne] thought with disgust, were interested only in those women who terrified them” are precious.

Then there’s Lady Whistledown, the pseudonymous society chronicler whose broadsheet the haut ton loves to hate but willingly supports at the outrageous rate of fivepence an issue. Her wry commentary foreshadows and reflects on the developments in each book, giving the whole series a refreshing tongue-in-cheek quality. Last but not least, the depiction of the interactions between various members of the Bridgerton clan are spot on, loving yet competitive, charmingly flawed, and often hilarious.

For those who don’t know, Bridgerton traces the romantic lives and marriages of a family of eight children, named alphabetically by order of age—Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Daphne, Eloise, Francesca, Gregory, and Hyacinth. They live in Regency England, and their adventures take place, more or less, from 1813 to 1824. Their father died just before his youngest daughter’s birth, leaving Anthony to become head of the family, as Viscount Bridgerton, at the age of eighteen. The children’s mother, Violet—another of the series’ great strengths—has been the mainstay of the family ever since. Hers was a love match, and she has chosen never to remarry, but she wants to see all her children settled happily, even though she’s willing to give them a say in whom they choose. Each book in the series explores the choices and eventual decision of one of the eight, starting with Daphne and ending with Gregory.

There’s only one way to enter this complex and by now fully realized world, and that’s to read the books in order. They’re all available in print and e-book, with splashy new covers to reflect the popularity of the television series. But if you know someone who fell in love with the Netflix version or is in general a Bridgerton fan who will appreciate the opportunity to revisit her favorite lines, then The Wit and Wisdom of Bridgerton would make a lovely present to stash under the Christmas tree or its winter holiday equivalent. It consists of thirteen chapters—one showcasing each child, one for Violet, plus chapters for three of the spouses (Kate, Penelope, and Simon) and one for Lady Danbury, a character who, although present throughout the novels, really comes into her own in the Netflix series. In addition, Lady Whistledown contributes a new set of commentaries, in addition to older quoted passages, and Julia Quinn herself adds an introduction.

And let’s leave it to Quinn herself to sum up the central point.

“A Bridgerton. To be such is to know that you are part of a family tightly webbed with staunch loyalty and unquestioning love. And laughter.

“Always laughter.”

—Julia Quinn, “Introduction,” The Wit and Wisdom of Bridgerton 

(New York: Avon Books, 2021), ix.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Putting Sherlock in Skirts

The best part of hosting New Books in Historical Fiction is that not only do I discover writers whose work—sometimes entire series!—has so far escaped my attention, but I also get to talk to them about their books and the choices they make.

Now, let’s be clear: the whole purpose of the New Books Network (NBN) is to showcase authors, not put them on the spot. This approach in part grows out of the network’s academic roots: it’s the nature of scholarship to question and dispute. We can even consider it a benefit, in that the unwillingness to accept ideas as givens works to push science forward. But it can also prevent those who make the new discoveries from having a chance to open their mouths without having a fellow scholar wave a document from some dusty archive and shout, “But what about …?”

The NBN provides a platform for people to explain their views and how they came to develop them without having to defend them at the same time. And although novelists don’t face quite the same pressures, there are moments when they come close. Sherry Thomas’s decision to turn Sherlock Holmes into a woman might be one of those moments. But as she explains in my current interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, she had a very good reason for her choice—and it wasn’t to sell more books (although her publisher would be forgiven for embracing that angle).

The result is a reader’s delight, because Lady Charlotte Holmes, although remarkably like Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation in personality, has developed in ways quite different from her literary inspiration—not least because the constraints on women in Victorian aristocratic society force her to approach her cases and life in general in ways that a man never needed to consider. She is also surrounded by a cast of characters who are either entirely new or who share only a last name with their Sherlockian predecessors.

With the sixth in the series, Miss Moriarty, I Presume? Charlotte tackles her own (and Sherlock’s) master antagonist head-on for the first time. But Moriarty is a presence from the beginning, so do yourself a favor and read the books in sequence, starting with A Study in Scarlet Women. You’ll be glad you did.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from the New Books Network.

Since Arthur Conan Doyle first created Sherlock Holmes, the great detective has gone through many permutations and been the subject of much study. As Sherry Thomas admits in this latest New Books Network interview, finding a new element to explore is not easy. But she has managed to discover one—perhaps an angle that is particularly fitting in this age of gender fluidity, although the Lady Sherlock series draws much of its punch from and plays off the stereotypes of the past, in this case Victorian England.

In Thomas’s re-imagining of the great detective, Sherlock Holmes is not only a fictional character but a front for the real detective, the disgraced younger daughter of a poverty-stricken baronet. Charlotte Holmes has an incisive intellect, an unflappable temperament, little respect for convention, and a love of books—traits that undermine her intended purpose in life as defined by her parents: to marry a wealthy, titled man. Charlotte cuts a deal with her father: if she’s still unmarried at twenty-five, he will fund her education so that she can earn her living as the headmistress of a girls’ school. But when Dad reneges on the deal, Charlotte takes matters into her own hands, with disastrous (from her parents’ perspective) but delightful (from her own) results.

This is the setup in the first book of the Lady Sherlock series, aptly titled A Study in Scarlet Women. By the time this sixth book rolls around, Charlotte has made a name for her alter ego and had several run-ins with the infamous Professor Moriarty and his underlings. In Miss Moriarty, I Presume? the tables are turned, and the professor seeks out Charlotte for assistance in finding his missing daughter. Unless, of course, the mission is simply a trap aimed at getting the meddlesome Charlotte out of the professor’s life permanently.

It’s best to read this engrossing series from beginning to end, as each book builds on those that came before. But watching Sherry Thomas turning the Holmes canon on its head is tremendous fun, and if you tear through the novels as I did, it won’t take long to reach Miss Moriarty, I Presume?.