Like Alison Goodman, as she notes below, I first encountered Regency London through the novels of Georgette Heyer, which I discovered in my early teens. Even now, I go back to my favorites every so often, although as I have matured, so have my views on which stories I consider favorites.
Heyer wrote her first novel at eighteen, and her early heroines were teenagers. Over the course of her long life, the heroines aged into their twenties, but women over thirty remained bit players—chaperones, governesses, and, worst of all, poor relations, doomed by the dreaded word “spinster” to secondary status even in their own families. So to encounter Alison Goodman’s 40-something unmarried twins—Lady Augusta Colebrook and her sister, Lady Julia—is a pleasant surprise. That the two women, each in her own distinctive way, resist the society that would relegate them to back rooms and lace caps just adds to the fun. And then there’s the disgraced Lord Evan Belford, escaped convict and highwayman, a charmer in his own right.
Alison Goodman was kind enough to answer my questions, so read on to find out more, then seek out The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies when it comes out on Tuesday. You won’t be disappointed. In fact, I can’t help thinking that if Heyer were writing today instead of in the last century, this is exactly the kind of story she would produce.
Your previous novels cover quite a range, from contemporary mystery to fantasy—including the Dark Days Club series, which might be considered Regency historical fantasy. How did this path lead you to The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies?
It has been quite a winding path through many genres to The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies. I suppose it is because I love to challenge myself when I write, and part of that is to write in different genres or to mash them together in ways that I hope will create surprise and delight. I would say the path to The Ill-Mannered Ladies started when I was twelve years old and my mother gave me my first Georgette Heyer historical novel. I immediately fell in love with historical fiction, and particularly books set in the Regency era. So, that love of all things Regency has been sitting in me for a long time. It first showed itself in my Dark Days Club series, which is like Pride and Prejudice meets Buffy, and is now in full throttle with The Ill-Mannered Ladies. The Ill-Mannered Ladies has no fantastical element like the Dark Days Club series, but it is as historically authentic and accurate as that earlier series and has as much action, romance and adventure. Plus it’s funny.
Lady Augusta Colebrook is quite a character. Tell us a bit about her.
Lady Augusta, or Gus as she is known to her twin sister Julia, is the main character and narrator of The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies. She is 42 years old, unmarried, smart, and a wee bit snarky. She is bored by the high society life she leads and is looking for purpose in her life beyond what society says a woman of her age and rank is allowed to do. And so, the Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies is born—Gus and her sister decide to use their privilege and invisibility as “old maids” to help other women in peril.
Her sister Julia is quieter and more biddable, yet she always seems to come through in a pinch. How would you describe her?
Julia is, I think, very much the “middle” child. She is the peacemaker between her fiery older twin, Gus, and their younger brother Lord Duffield or Duffy, as his family calls him. Julia seeks harmony and peace in her life, but that does not mean she won’t answer the call to adventure. She has a grounded serenity, and if Gus is ever in any trouble, Julia will come out swinging on her twin’s behalf. She has a lot of quiet gumption.
The twins, like many twins, have a special bond. Among other things, they often communicate without words. Why did you include that element?
I love the idea of a secret language between twins, which has been well documented in real twins, and it provides a lot of fun in the book. Gus and Julia communicate through their expressions: a flick of an eyebrow, a frown, a particular smile. Their secret language gives them an advantage in both social situations and on their adventures, and it really adds to their closeness as sisters in the novel.
Do introduce us to Lord Evan Belford. He is an absolute delight.
Ah, Lord Evan. What a honey! He’s had a bit of rough time of it: fought a duel twenty years earlier as a young man and apparently killed his man so was charged with murder, found guilty, and transported to Australia. Now he’s back in England for his own reasons and happens across Gus and Julia on one of their adventures. And when I say “happens across,” I mean he attempts to hold up their coach and Gus accidentally shoots him. However, he is exceptionally forgiving and so starts a wonderful partnership. His circumstances have forced him to live outside the privilege of his upbringing as the son of a marquess and so he is a rather appealing blend of gentleman and rogue.
In contrast, neither the twin’s brother, Lord Duffield, nor Evan’s, Lord Deele, could be considered at all delightful. Could you give us a brief description of them?
To be very brief, Duffy is Mr. Pompous! He is very much a man of his time—literally titled and very much entitled. Since their father’s death, he is the head of the Colebrook family and he believes it is his right to control his unmarried sisters’ lives. As you can imagine, that does not sit well with Gus at all. Lord Deele is Lord Evan’s younger brother but through circumstances has inherited the family title and wealth and is guardian to their younger sister. He, too, feels that as head of the family he can control the women within it, with disastrous consequences. Both of these characters are emblematic of the misogyny of the period but also have their own needs and goals that, unfortunately, get in Gus’s way. And woe betide anyone who gets in Lady Augusta Colebrook’s way!
Sketch for us, please, the cases that occupy Augusta and Julia in this book.
Without giving too much away, I have structured the novel into three cases (a nod to the wonderful Conan Doyle), each with its own story, but each also part of the overarching story. The first case takes Gus and Julia to a country house to save a wife in dire peril. The second takes them to Cheltenham and a nefarious situation in a brothel. And the third case takes them to a heinous asylum. I call the novel a serious romp, because it is fun and full adventure but also deals with some of the darker aspects of the Regency period.
This novel leaves Lady Augusta with an uncompleted mission. Are you working on the next book now, and can you give us any hints about what to expect?
I am, indeed, working on the next book and having as much fun with this one as I did while writing The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies. It’s another serious romp, this time with two longer cases rather than the three cases in the first book (yes, I’m having fun playing around with structure again!). Anything more, I think, would start to head into spoiler territory for the first book, so I will end by saying you can expect Gus and Julia to be just as resourceful, ill-mannered, and indomitable.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Alison Goodman is the award-winning author of eight novels—The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies, the Dark Days Club trilogy, the fantasy duology EON and EONA, Singing the Dogstar Blues, and A New Kind of Death. She lives in Melbourne, Australia. Find out more about her at https://www.alisongoodman.com.au/.
Portrait of Alison Goodman © Tania Jovanovic. Images of Regency ladies, gentleman, and highwayman public domain via Wikimedia Commons.