Friday, May 28, 2021

The Price of Friendship

Whether we like it or not, each of us lives with the knowledge that someday we will not be here. After fifteen months of pandemic-imposed lockdowns and surging death rates, now at least temporarily mitigated in the United States and much of Europe by vaccinations, that message has a particular relevance.

Even those of us who are not religious in the traditional sense comfort ourselves with the belief that our names will live on in the memories of families and friends. But suppose your friends—perhaps with the best of intentions, but possibly not—construct a story of your life and your untimely death that at best gives undue weight to your failings and at worst wholly ignores your strengths?

That question drives Lady Be Good, Pamela Hamilton’s debut novel about the dancer, actress, artist, and socialite Dorothy Hale. To find out more about Hale, her life, and why Hamilton suspects the entire story has not yet been told, read on, then listen to my latest interview on New Books in Historical Fiction. By the time you’re done, you may want to quiz a few of those dear friends and family members about just what they’ll have to say when something happens to you.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

The name of Dorothy Hale is not well known these days. In the 1920s, she enjoyed a career on Broadway as a dancer, including in a leading role with Fred Astaire. When an accidental injury ended that career, she auditioned, successfully, for the filmmaker Samuel Goldwyn and landed a part opposite Ronald Coleman, who would later star in Lost Horizon. But Dorothy’s film career did not take off, and she moved into art, writing, and museum work in support of her second husband, Gardner Hale, a well-known fresco painter and portraitist, until his tragic death in 1931.

Dorothy survived the stock-market crash of 1929 with her wealth intact and remained a light of New York society into the 1930s. Her closest friend—Clare Boothe, who married Henry Luce in 1935—branched out from an active career in magazine publishing, including a stint as managing editor of Vanity Fair, to write and produce a Broadway play titled The Women. The play lampooned members of their social circle, evoking both amusement and outrage. Dorothy Hale then starred in Boothe Luce’s next play, Abide with Me. When Hale fell to her death from the window of her apartment building in October 1938, Boothe Luce commissioned a commemorative painting from their mutual friend Frida Kahlo.

This painting, The Suicide of Dorothy Hale (1939), was the spark that lit the imagination of Pamela Hamilton, a long-time producer for NBC News. She began to research Hale’s life and death and uncovered the kind of anomalies that delight both fiction and nonfiction writers. For reasons explained in this interview, Hamilton decided to turn her findings and her speculations about their meaning into a novel, and Lady Be Good: The Life and Times of Dorothy Hale (Köehler Books, 2021) is the result. Against the backdrop of New York high society, the Algonquin Set, the art world, and politics under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, this novel paints a picture of a vivacious, determined woman and offers an alternative vision of her final hours.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Advice to the Lovelorn

As I mentioned about a month ago, my friend and fellow Five Directions Press writer Claudia H. Long has started an advice column for characters on her blog. Many of the characters are her own, but she accepts questions from other authors’ troubled creations, which she answers in the persona of Madam Mariana, a time-traveling and super-savvy source of well-considered and often-humorous counsel.

Yesterday Madam Mariana fielded a plea from Darya Petrovna Sheremeteva, the heroine of Song of the Sisters, my own latest novel—released this past January and woefully under-promoted due to a family medical crisis (not Covid!), since happily resolved, that struck at just the wrong moment.

Let's start with a word about Darya: she is a twenty-five-year-old Russian noblewoman, the younger of two surviving children, each of whom has the same father but a different mother. She has spent the seven years before the story begins nursing their elderly father, while her older sister, Solomonida, maintained the family’s connections with the outside world. This experience has heightened Darya’s religious sensibility while leaving her somewhat naive about society, especially men, and its expectations. By temperament, too, she is naturally inclined to do what others expect of her, although in reality she’s much less deferential than she appears at first glance. She dislikes confrontation, but she knows how to exert authority, because she has managed her family’s household since the age of fourteen. Although her older sister returned to the house when Darya was sixteen, Solomonida’s responsibilities at court meant that Darya bore primary responsibility for keeping the servants in line.

Darya has never known her own mother, who died giving birth to her, and her stepmother (her father’s third wife) died when Darya was fourteen. As a result, Solomonida, six years older and widowed, represents Darya’s only source of female comfort and advice. When their obnoxious cousin Igor shows up, waves a will that gives him control of the estate, and announces his plans to advance his career by marrying Darya off to a man of his choosing (while stashing Solomonida in a convent), the battle lines are drawn and the two sisters begin to use every weapon they can muster to thwart Igor’s schemes.

Alas, the position of women, even aristocratic women, in sixteenth-century Russia places severe limits on the sisters’ ability to control their own fate. The son of their father’s best friend arrives with a parallel claim to the estate, but his help does not come without cost. Soon he has disappeared, leaving Cousin Igor more determined than before to marry Darya off before she escapes his clutches altogether. Hence her plea to Madam Mariana, reproduced here.

Moscow, September 7051 [1543]

Deeply respected Madam Mariana!

I am at my wit’s end. At twenty-five years old, beyond marriageable age, I was reunited with the love of my childhood, Nikita, but on the very afternoon when he declared his desire to wed me—as my father intended!—the government called him back into service.

I don’t know when I will see him again, but it hardly matters. The next day, I learned from my neighbor that he has been promised to another for years. My heart is broken. How can he dishonor me so?

My wicked cousin, who controls our ancestral estate, insists on finding me another spouse. But I know that no crony of my cousin’s will do for me. I tried to take monastic vows, but the abbess turned down my request and advised me to practice obedience by submitting my will to my cousin’s. When he seeks only a powerful patron at court? What kind of spiritual exercise is that?

Now I am stuck dodging potential husbands, each less suitable than the one before. My cousin swears he will force me to become his bride if one more candidate withdraws his offer. Other than throwing myself in the Moscow River, which would be a terrible sin, what can you recommend?

Yours in humility and hope,

Darya Petrovna Sheremeteva

P.S. I have already deployed several of the more effective methods of discouraging unwanted suitors—or at least their mothers.

And what does Madam Mariana have to say? You can find her answer on Claudia H. Long’s blog, as well as her advice to quite a few other distracted damsels, not to mention a married woman with man trouble and a desolate dog—all tearing their hair out at the hands life has dealt them.

To find out what those “methods of discouraging unwanted suitors” may be, of course, you’ll need to read the book. For buy links, check out its dedicated page on the Five Directions Press website. We’ll have an audio excerpt up there soon, but you can read a print excerpt by clicking the cover.

And of course, you can listen to the free interview on New Books in Historical Fiction, with thanks to G.P. Gottlieb for acting as host. We talk about the second book, Song of the Shaman, as well, while the first book in the series has its own interview

And one more thing! I just discovered that the New Books in Historical Fiction interviews (and indeed, many New Books Network interviews) are now on Spotify. So just search for the channel you want, and you can listen to the interviews there, too.

Images: Sergei Solomko, The Meeting (1880s); Konstantin Makovsky, The Young Nun (1890s), both public domain via WikiArt.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Reawakening Sherlock Holmes

Although I’m no more immune than anyone else to the appeal of Sherlock Holmes as a character in film and on television, I have to admit that I have never quite warmed to the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories. Some of the modern book series based on the great detective and his faithful sidekick, Dr. John Watson, however, have won my heart. In this respect, the situation with Holmes is the opposite of Jane Austen’s novels—another well-trodden fictional pathway where, other than films and TV productions based on the originals, the many spinoffs seldom give Austen’s creations a run for their money (although I have featured a few that stand out).

I have long been a fan of Laurie R. King’s series featuring Mary Russell as Sherlock’s partner and wife, eliminating Watson but retaining Mycroft Holmes as a kind of bête noire for Mary and imparting a new twist to Mrs. Hudson. On that, more next month, when I talk about the latest book in the series, Castle Shade, which I’m reading as an advance copy from NetGalley.

Bonnie MacBird takes a very different approach from King, but she too is now a favorite. As she insists during my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview, her goal is to stay within the bounds established by Conan Doyle while inventing new cases of her own and adapting the series to long-form fiction.

She does an admirable job. In The Three Locks—the only one in the series I’ve read so far—the main characters and their relationship sound and act like the late Victorian males they are, yet we get the occasional glimpse into parts of their pasts and their personalities that Conan Doyle chose not to reveal. These are not the middle-aged and measured gentlemen portrayed by Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce but closer to the Robert Downey Jr./Jude Law version: active and enthusiastic men in their thirties willing to risk life and limb as need be.

The mysteries are twisty and colorful, with complicated plots and satisfying solutions. Each one addresses a deeper theme: the benefits and costs of the artistic temperament; the power of spirits, whether material (i.e., alcoholic) or immaterial (ghosts of the past); the consequences of moral compromise; the pressures of illicit love. And MacBird talks easily and well about everything from her writing choices to her research. So give her interview a listen, then dive into one of her books. It’s all tremendous fun, and even in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, here’s a visit you can enjoy—and to 221B Baker Street, at that!

You can also find a transcript of the interview on LitHub Radio.


As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Sherlock Holmes is one of the rare literary characters who has achieved a kind of cultural immortality. As Bonnie MacBird notes in this interview, display an image of a deerstalker hat and a pipe almost anywhere in the world, and people can identify the great detective without a second thought. So is it any wonder that an entire industry is devoted to expanding the Conan Doyle canon?

Not all these attempts succeed, but MacBird’s novels are a gem. The Three Locks (Collins Crime Club, 2021), fourth in her series and set in 1887, opens with a mysterious package delivered to Dr. John Watson. London is in the midst of a heat wave, Watson’s friend Holmes has withdrawn in one of his periodic funks, and the package offers the rather disgruntled doctor a welcome distraction. Its appeal increases when Watson discovers that it contains an engraved silver box sent by his father’s half-sister, an aunt he did not know he had, and represents his mother’s last gift to him. But as he struggles to discover the key to unlocking the box, Holmes appears, warning of danger.

Watson’s drive to prove Holmes wrong (he rejects his friend’s suggestion that the aunt’s letter may be a forgery and the lock designed to cause harm) must compete with the demands of two other cases. The wife of an escape artist requests help in protecting her husband from an angry rival, her former lover—a case that becomes more urgent when the escape artist’s most dramatic stunt goes awry, causing his death. Then the rebellious daughter of a Cambridge don goes missing, to the great distress of the local deacon who has unwisely fallen in love with her.

Holmes initially dismisses the second case, although he takes a personal interest in the first. But when a doll made to resemble the young woman is found in the Jesus Lock on the Cam River, with a broken arm and an illegible threat written in purple ink on its cloth chest, the hunt is on, for both the don’s daughter and the person who wishes her harm. In time, it becomes clear that the two cases are connected—and that Holmes must defeat not only a cunning murderer but the over-zealous local police.

Image: Sidney Paget, “Sherlock Holmes,” for The Strand (1891), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.New Books in Historical Fiction

Friday, May 7, 2021

Interview with Emily Hourican

Even as a child growing up in the UK, I had heard of Guinness beer. I have vague memories of, at one point in my life (not as a child, obviously!), being advised to drink stout because of its iron content—a suggestion that went nowhere because I never developed a liking for stout. But the idea that a particular brand of beer must be the brain child of an individual with a vision, and that the individual in question might have a family worthy of a novel, never occurred to me until a publicist pitched Emily Hourican’s The Glorious Guinness Girls for a New Books Network interview that didn’t fit into my schedule. I read the book, enjoyed it, learned a lot about 1920s high society, and am delighted to have the opportunity to share with you this interview with the author. Read on to find out more, and don’t forget to admire that gorgeous cover, with its Guinness harp smack dab in the center!

This is not your first novel, but it is your first historical novel. What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing historical versus contemporary fiction, in your view?

Yes, I had written four contemporary novels before switching to historical fiction. I was ready for a change. I wanted to keep writing, but to write in a slightly different way. Historical fiction throws up certainties—boundaries—which make it very interesting from an imaginative perspective.

It was interesting to work within a factual framework. To have a skeleton structure that couldn’t be altered—dates of birth, of marriage, the significant events of the time, small dates such as when the Guinnesses were known to have attended a party or been in a certain place. Within that, then, the challenge was to fill out a story that didn’t alter the facts, that took account of them and worked together to create something.

So instead of contemporary fiction, in which the only limit is your imagination and the psychology of your characters, there were fixed points I couldn’t mess with. I loved that. It made it feel like a jigsaw puzzle with some bits complete, and I had to fill in the rest.

Disadvantages? The same thing, from a different perspective! Sometimes it would have been easier for the story if I had been able to move the girls around more freely, ignore the fact that they couldn’t have been in a certain place at a certain time, because history had already recorded them as being somewhere else, for example. But in general, I didn’t find those disadvantages to be significant at all. The fun was far more than the irritations!

Your main character—Felicity, known as Fliss—is not one of the Guinness girls of your title. Unlike them, she is also your creation. How would you characterize her, and how does she become part of the Guinness world?

Fliss is someone who would have been far more typical of her time (the Guinness girls were definitely not typical; they were too rich!). Fliss is the daughter of an impoverished Anglo-Irish family (basically, that meant a big house, a lot of land, and very little actual money; for a girl like Fliss, that meant very few prospects in a world in which she could only have married within a narrow social sphere, and so many young men had died in the Great War).

She goes to live with the Guinness girls, initially to do lessons and be company for the girls—that kind of thing happened often enough to girls like Fliss. Often, it wasn’t a particularly happy arrangement, but in Fliss’s case, it works out very well. She and the Guinness girls become very close, and she stays on living with them long past the schoolroom.

For me, Fliss is a way to see into the Guinnesses’ world from a new and fresh perspective. Aileen, Maureen, and Oonagh themselves couldn’t have understood the extraordinary privilege of their lives. I wanted somehow who could—who could look at the way they lived, and know how very much it was removed from any ordinary experience.

I could also, through Fliss, show a different kind of possibility and outcome for the young women of the 1920s. The Guinness girls all stuck with very traditional roles—they were wives, mothers, hostesses, and patrons rather than doers, makers, creators. At a time when careers, independence, and agency were suddenly more available to women than ever before, the Guinnesses chose not to pursue them.

With Fliss, I was able to show something of the alternate world—the path the Guinnesses didn’t take. I loved the freedom she allowed me to do this.

Fliss’s brother, Hugh, has a very different personality from his sister, as often happens with siblings. His role in the novel, although secondary, is crucial. What can you tell us about him and what he adds to your tale?

Hughie, for me, was many things. He was male and therefore had freedom, autonomy, agency, in a way that his sister, certainly as a young person, did not. He had an education. The property, such as it was, would go to him. He could move about the countryside freely in a way that she could not. There were women of Fliss’s social class who got involved in the struggle for Irish independence—but they were always older, and usually richer, than Fliss.

Hughie could get involved with the fight for Irish freedom, with the world of politics and revolution, and he could bring that with him into the much smaller world that Fliss and the Guinness girls inhabited.

It wouldn’t have been credible to involve these girls directly in the political and social upheaval going on around them, and yet they lived through it. They watched the burning of the Four Courts in Dublin city on June 30, 1922. They were witnesses, if not participants, to these extraordinary events in Irish history, and Hughie, for me, was a way to bring those events closer to them.

He was also, for me, some much-needed male energy in their world—and male energy always seems to change things within a group of women!

You’ve mentioned that Maureen is your favorite among the three Guinness daughters. What sets her apart from her sisters, Aileen and Oonagh, as far as you’re concerned?

When I was researching this novel, I spoke to a wonderful man, also a writer, called Thomas Pakenham, who was a godson of Maureen’s. His father Frank was best man at Maureen’s wedding to Basil Blackwood. Thomas’s memories of Maureen are very vivid, and he recalls her as someone who was intelligent and very compelling, as well as very snobbish and self-centered. She had a strong personality and became monstrously self-centered and rude in later life. I was interested in the young Maureen—before she became like that. After all, no one is monstrous at ten, or sixteen, or twenty. She became a kind of caricature in later life, all diamond-studded cat-eyed sunglasses, blue hair, and vulgar practical jokes; I wanted to know what such a person was like before she became like that. I imagine she would have been charming, dynamic, entertaining, before she became too nasty and too selfish.

When the four girls—the Guinness sisters and Fliss—get to London, it’s the early 1920s. They encounter two separate social worlds: high society and the Bright Young Things. Could you sketch this environment, and the girls’ reactions to it, for us?

The 1920s were a fascinating point in UK society. The Great War, which ended in 1918, changed everything and accelerated social upheaval. Women had known a taste of freedom—working, nursing, seizing opportunities as they came—and were unwilling to go back. Meanwhile young people were sick of gloom and death and misery and determined to enjoy themselves. Many were also determined to forget the niggling guilt of not having fought in the War to End All Wars because they were too young. Many had lost fathers, brothers, cousins, and so on. They were driven by unacknowledged grief and a sense that life was short.

The result was an explosion of energy—cocktails, jazz, short skirts, fancy dress—that tore up the old, decorous rule book around what could and couldn’t be done. Girls got their hair cut, got drunk, and went wild. Older society matrons were horrified. The newspapers were delighted—they had endless parties and scandals to write about. It was a period of manic energy that expressed itself in parties and frivolity until the Great Crash of 1929 brought it to an abrupt end.

The Guinness girls were a big part of this 1920s scene. There was even something called The Guinness Set that revolved around their cousin Bryan, his wife Diana Mitford, and the Guinness girls. They were the giddiest, showiest, and richest of all the showy and giddy scene.  

Despite years of living in luxury, albeit as a kind of glorified servant or charity case, Fliss ultimately chooses to pursue a career rather than, say, marry for money. Why did you include this element in your novel?

I became very fond of Fliss as I wrote this book. She is a truly generous and kindly person, and the idea of abandoning her to a fate like Gunnie’s, in which she is a companion and subordinate for her entire life—I just couldn’t do it! Neither did I want her to switch from one kind of servitude—with the Guinnesses—straight into another kind, which would have been marriage in those days. I wanted Fliss to make good on all her subtle intelligence and decency and choose a life for herself that allowed her to become a person of substance in her own right.

I also wanted her to demonstrate, through her choice, the interesting (to me!) fact that the Guinness girls did not make that kind of choice. A path diverged for women in the early 1920s, and Fliss chose what I believe was the more dynamic route.

Are you already working on something new?

I am! I am deep into writing the second book in the series. It’s called The Glorious Guinness Girls: A Hint of Scandal, and it follows the girls’ lives through the very troubled 1930s, when they are wives and mothers and encounter personal difficulties at the same time as Europe is moving toward the Second World War.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Thank you so much for asking me!

Emily Hourican is the author of four contemporary novels and The Glorious Guinness Girls, nominated for the Best Popular Fiction Awards at the 2020 Irish Book Awards. A former editor and journalist, she lives in Dublin with her husband and children. Find out more about her at

Photograph of Maureen Guinness (1933) by Bassano, public domain through Wikimedia Commons.