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Friday, February 24, 2023

Interview with Joanna Lowell

In college, I read romances, both historical and contemporary, by the bucketful. These days, not so much. A romance novel has to have a real hook in terms of characters and plot if it’s to draw me in, and those characters and that plot need to be strong enough that the final falling in love—which is, after all, the most predictable part of a romance novel—seems not only inevitable but part of a resolution to broader problems presented in the story world. If the book also features sparkling dialogue and a sense of humor, I’m hooked.

Artfully Yours is such a book. Nina Finch is a talented artist, but late nineteenth-century English society has little use for women painters, especially those of limited means and reduced social standing. Her brother Jack also has artistic aspirations, but after a series of misfortunes, he has turned his talents to forging the great masters and lured—not to say forced—Nina into helping him. As a result, Nina has redirected her aspirations toward baking Victoria sponges and gooseberry tarts to sell from a shop of her own.

But she can’t turn her back on the brother who raised her, and when it becomes clear that London’s foremost art critic, a duke’s son who goes by the name of Mr. Alan De’Ath (yes, the pun on “death” is deliberate, and he is in reality Lord Alan), has Jack’s forgeries in his gun sights, Nina agrees to accept the position of Alan’s amanuensis so she can keep track of his investigation and save Jack’s neck—and her own. With her pet marmoset, Fritz, she infiltrates Alan’s household, where she runs into a cast of eccentric characters, including a group of woman painters led by a cross-dressing firebrand determined to bend the artistic elite of London to her will.

It's all delightfully tongue-in-cheek, and although we can predict that Nina and Alan are meant for each other, how they will cross the vast divide that separates them remains far from clear well into the book. So too does the family secret, hinted at early on, behind Alan’s ongoing conflict with his aristocratic relatives. And if that’s not enough to draw you in, the antics of Fritz and the many humans desperate to wring a good review out of Alan will keep you flipping pages right to the end. 

Joanna Lowell was kind enough to answer my questions, so read on to find out more.

 

This is your third historical romance set in 1880s England. What draws you to this particular period?

My aunt gave me two big volumes of Arthur Conan Doyle when I was young, so Sherlock Holmes stories were my gateway to late Victorian London. All the gaslights and broughams! I’ve read other things since—novels of the late Victorian period or set in the late Victorian period, and also histories—and I still find the end of the nineteenth century fascinating. That may be partly because I grew up at the end of the twentieth century (1980s/90s). There’s something familiar about the fin de si├Ęcle feeling. People looking toward the future and imagining new realities. By 1881, London had nearly five million people. It was by far the biggest city in the world. There was enormous wealth and staggering poverty. Everything was speeding up due to industrialization, which was fueled by exploited workers and by raw materials thieved from the colonies. Class struggle intensified. Imperial wars raged. Women mobilized for political rights. We can see so many throughlines to the present, but it’s very much not our time as well. Different laws. Different social norms. (And of course, the gaslights and broughams!) That tension is very generative for me. I want to write characters that speak to readers now, and I also want to transport readers into the past so they can feel the (fictionalized) historical context come alive.

 

Some of the characters from the two previous novels are mentioned in passing in this one. Could you give us a quick summary of The Duke Undone and The Runaway Duchess?

The Duke Undone is the story of an aspiring artist from London’s East End and an angsty duke haunted by his demons and struggling to repair a brutal family legacy. They come from completely different places and stations in life, and they meet by chance when Anthony is sprawled passed-out drunk and naked in an alleyway. Lucy paints him from memory, just for herself, but one thing leads to another, and she sells the picture. Anthony sees it and is most displeased. A confrontation ensues, and the two realize they each have the power to help or hurt the other. Lucy is trying to save her condemned home and launch her painting career. Anthony is trying to find his missing sister while seeming to comply with the rules set down in his father’s will. They strike a bargain and get much more than they bargained for.

 

The Runaway Duchess unfolds across the moors of Cornwall. It follows Lavinia, the mean girl introduced in The Duke Undone. She escapes the horrible duke she just married by stealing someone else’s identity. Pretending to be another person makes her think more deeply about who she is. She realizes that she wants to change, and that she’s falling for the man she’s deceiving—not a great way to begin a relationship! (Even if you’re not a runaway bride.) Neal is true-hearted and sunny and doesn’t want to play games or get involved with a spoiled London socialite. He hopes to settle down with a fellow botanist. When the truth comes out, he and Lavinia are already too entangled for either of them to walk away, but finding a way forward requires a whole new order of growth.

 

Neal is best friends with Alan De’Ath, the art critic. Alan plays a role in the last quarter of The Runaway Duchess. He’s the hero of Artfully Yours, which brings the series back to the London art world.

 

Introduce us to your heroine, Nina Finch. What does she want out of life, and what is her reality when the novel opens?

Nina wants peace and quiet, a life that’s simple and sweet and free of risk. Her dream is to run a village bakery. She’s practical and organized, and she has it all planned out. The problem isn’t that she doesn’t know her own mind, it’s that her heart tells her she can’t leave her brother. Jack raised her after their mother died. When the novel opens, they’re living in a noisy, chaotic curiosity shop. Jack has a forger’s workshop upstairs. He trained Nina to paint in the style of Old Masters, and they make their living off their forgeries. This means there’s always the threat of discovery and punishment hanging over their heads. It’s horribly anxious-making for Nina. She worries for Jack, and that worry—along with her powerful loyalty—makes it difficult to imagine leaving unless he comes with her.

 

How did Nina’s brother Jack wind up in his current predicament?

Jack would say it’s because the deck was stacked against him from the start. He was as talented as his fellow students at the Royal Academy of Art but, unlike most of them, he lacked financial resources. Stepping up to care for Nina meant that he had to change how he was living, and ultimately led to his losing his place at the Royal Academy. He and Nina both understand this as a major sacrifice, one that bonded them together and put Nina in his debt. Jack realized he could make the most money forging art, and so he established himself in the Royal Academy’s shadow. He got caught fairly early on, and his experience in prison made him angrier and left him with even fewer options, so he went back to forging, with Nina’s reluctant help. I don’t entirely disagree with Jack’s social critique, but his refusal to take responsibility for his decisions and the way he manipulates Nina create a central tension in the book. 

 



Alan De’Ath is in every way Nina’s opposite. Without giving away any of his secrets, give us a sense of him at the moment when he enters her life.

Alan is an art world insider, one of the most respected critics in England. He thrives in London’s elite and bohemian circles. Born into an aristocratic family, he inhabits a place of privilege, operating with confidence and social ease. For all that, he’s a very guarded person. He has dozens upon dozens of friends and acquaintances, but he’s careful to show them only what he wants them to see. He uses humor as a mask. When he meets Nina, things have just started to crumble. His extremely troubled family relationships (past and present) are threatening his ability to live the life he built for himself. He’s trying to use his wits, as usual, to fix the situation. Only in this case, he’s going to have to dig deeper, and that terrifies him. He felt vulnerable once and doesn’t want to feel that way ever again. This avoidance is going to compound his problems.   


Tell us, please, about the Sisterhood and the part they play in this novel.

The Sisterhood is a group of women artists that Lucy Coover (heroine of The Duke Undone) started with her friends while they were students at the Royal Academy of Art. They’re dedicated to making art education more equitable for women, and to supporting each other and other women in the art world. They’re friends with Alan, and so Nina finds herself interacting with them. They’re the first contemporary artists she’s ever known, and meeting them forces her to see forgery in a new light. It also gives her a glimpse into a way of living that appeals to her and that she never thought possible for herself.

 

And perhaps Fritz deserves an introduction. What made you decide to include a marmoset?

Many of the human relationships in Nina’s life have been changeable and explosive, so she feels particularly close with her animal friends. I wanted her to have one comrade in particular that traveled around with her, providing support and also causing some mischief. Virginia Woolf lived with a marmoset named Mitz. Sigrid Nunez wrote a wonderful book about her, Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury, which I highly recommend. I created Nina’s marmoset, Fritz, in homage to Mitz. The animals most present in my life at the time of writing were the neighborhood squirrels, so Fritz has some squirrel in him as well.  


For all the sparkling humor—of which there is a good deal—Alan makes an important point about forgery and its effect on art. Could you summarize that for us, please?

Jack sees forgery as a victimless crime. So long as the fake isn’t discovered, buyer and seller both get what they want. Where’s the harm in that? Alan thinks that forgery harms art itself, that allowing a fake Rembrandt to stand as a real Rembrandt does a disservice to our understanding of what makes painting matter. But beyond that, he thinks forgery hurts living artists. There was a growing demand for artworks by famous dead painters in the nineteenth century. This was linked to the rise of national museums and business elites who wanted to establish prestige through private art collections, and forgers took advantage of the opportunity, creating fakes galore, which fed the buying frenzy. Alan wishes this would all settle down, and attention could turn to riskier, contemporary work, such as the paintings and sculptors by the members of the Sisterhood. Fewer forgeries of old stuff, more room for new stuff.


What are you working on now?

A beach-set queer Victorian romance. It’s part of the same series. There’s more art, there’s also lots of seaweed, and bicycles with big front wheels.

           

Thank you so much for answering my questions!


Joanna Lowell lives among the fig trees in North Carolina, where she teaches in the English department at Wake Forest University. She is the author of The Duke Undone, The Runaway Duchess, and Artfully Yours. When she’s not writing historical romance, she writes other things as Joanna Ruocco.  Find out more about her at https://www.joannalowell.com

 

Images: William Powell Frith, A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881 public domain, and photograph of a marmoset © Carmem A. Busko CC BY 2.5, both via Wikimedia Commons.

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