Blog

The letters of the alphabet frighten me terribly

I was looking through my notebooks and came across a great quote about writing from Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel about St. Francis of Assisi, Saint Francis. (I can’t vouch for the translation in the linked edition–I read a much earlier one–but as far as I can tell it’s the only one in print.) The book is narrated by Francis’s best friend and follower, Brother Leo, who says (and I apologize in advance for the association of blackness with the devil):

“Yes, may God forgive me, but the letters of the alphabet frighten me terribly. They are sly, shameless demons–and dangerous! You open the inkwell, release them; they run off and how will you ever get control of them again? They come to life, join, separate, ignore your commands, arrange themselves as they like on the paper–black, with tails and horns. You scream at them and ignore them in vain: they do as they please. Prancing, pairing up shamelessly before you, they deceitfully expose what you did not wish to reveal, and they refuse to give voice to what is struggling, deep within your bowels, to come forth and speak to mankind.”

He’s got it right on the nose, doesn’t he?

Here is another bit from the book that I love:

“When an almond tree because covered with blossoms in the heart of winter, all the trees around it began to jeer. ‘What vanity,’ they screamed, ‘what insolence! Just think, it believes it can bring spring in this way!’ The flowers of the almond tree blushed for shame. ‘Forgive me, my sisters,’ said the tree. ‘I swear I did not want to blossom, but suddenly I felt a warm springtime breeze in my heart.'”

"Is it true, the dreadful story about you and Currer Bell?"

I recently talked about Thackeray’s dislike of Regency clothing. One of my favorite historical anecdotes about unfortunate coincidences and social awkwardness is about him and Charlotte Brontë.

I’m not actually sure how many times I’ve read Jane Eyre. The scene where Mr. Rochester talks about how there’s a thread from his chest to hers, and if they were separated he might take to bleeding internally—I swoon every time. A few years ago, I got a copy that reprinted the preface to the second edition. I laughed and laughed. Here’s the relevant bit in its entirety, because you don’t really get the scale of the fullsome earnestness otherwise:

“There is a man in our own days whose words are not framed to tickle delicate ears: who, to my thinking, comes before the great ones of society, much as the son of Imlah came before the throned Kings of Judah and Israel; and who speaks truth as deep, with a power as prophet-like and as vital—a mien as dauntless and daring. Is the satirist of Vanity Fair admired in high places? I cannot tell; but I think if some of those amongst whom he hurls the Greek fire of his sarcasm, and over whom he flashes the levin-brand of his denunciation, were to take his warnings in time—they or their seed might yet escape a fatal Ramoth-Gilead.

Why have I alluded to this man? I have alluded to him, Reader, because I think I see in him an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognised; because I regard him as the first social regenerator of the day—as the very master of that working corps who would restore to rectitude the warped system of things; because I think no commentator on his writings has yet found the comparison that suits him, the terms which rightly characterize his talent. They say he is like Fielding: they talk of his wit, humor, comic powers. He resembles Fielding as an eagle does a vulture: Fielding could stoop on carrion, but Thackeray never does. His wit is bright, his humor attractive, but both bear the same relation to his serious genius, that the mere lambent sheet-lightning playing under the edge of the summer-cloud, does to the electric death-spark hid in his womb. Finally, I have alluded to Mr. Thackeray, because to him—if he will accept the tribute of a total stranger—I have dedicated this second edition of Jane Eyre.

Currer Bell.
Dec. 21st, 1847.”

Now, Thackeray is a very Victorian, moral writer, and he does have social/political/moral points to make with his books. But he’s also a snarky guy who doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously. And Charlotte Brontë is a genius, and Thackeray loved Jane Eyre, but…her sense of humor isn’t really her strong point, is it? I can’t imagine Thackeray reading this incredibly sincere, dramatic, serious dedication without laughing yet also being sort of vicariously embarrassed. I don’t think his intention was ever to save anyone from a fatal Ramoth-Gilead*, you know?

So I laughed, and I thought no more about it. But THEN I was reading a biography of Thackeray that my dad had lying around the house and discovered there was more to the story!**

Thackeray’s wife, like the first Mrs. Rochester, was mentally ill. Which Charlotte Brontë would have had no way of knowing. But there was ALREADY a rumor going around that “Currer Bell” was Thackeray’s children’s governess, getting back at him for his unflattering portrayal of her as Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair (which came out in serial form the same year). So when this dedication was printed a lot of people saw it as proof.

Yes! They were convinced that Jane was a Mary Sue for Charlotte Brontë and that Jane Eyre was about her and Thackeray’s forbidden love!

This rumor was so popular it was still going around THIRTEEN YEARS LATER. In 1860 Thackeray was at a dinner party, and an American lady asked, “Is it true, the dreadful story about you and Currer Bell?”

Thackeray said, “Alas, madam, it is all too true. And the fruits of that unhallowed intimacy were six children. I slew them all with my own hand.”

I love Thackeray a lot.

Now I’m wondering if Georgette Heyer was inspired by this misunderstanding when she wrote Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle.

*I looked up Ramoth-Gilead, in case any of you were wondering. Apparently the reference is to 1 Kings 22: all the prophets except Micaiah tell King Ahab he’ll win if he fights to take back Ramoth-Gilead from the Syrians. Micaiah says, “I saw all Israel scattered upon the hills, as sheep that have not a shepherd: and the LORD said, These have no master: let them return every man to his house in peace.” Ahab gets really mad and throws Micaiah in prison and goes into battle anyway. Of course he loses and gets killed.

…It doesn’t say whether they let Micaiah out of prison after that.

**For this post, I confirmed the details in Love’s Madness by Helen Small.

Five Titles In Search Of A Novel

I’ve been writing historical romance since I was 17, and since then I’ve never wanted to write any other kind of novel. I don’t get plot bunnies for them, either.

What I do get are titles.

Seriously, I have a whole list of titles for never-to-be-written novels in such genres as:

The Great American Novel: Meet Me in Sumner J. Calish Square.
The Great American Expatriate Novel: The Bushes in Paris Have Thorns.
The Great Jewish-American Novel: Envious Kishke (and its sequel, Kaddish Cheese).
The Great American Novel with a Southern Setting: A Jar Big Enough to Hold the Sky.

I have no desire to actually WRITE any of these books. I don’t know anything about their plots or characters, and anyway my talent is for writing an entirely different kind of book. But what I love about them is that you can tell from the title exactly what KIND of book they would be.

Obviously romance titles are often instantly recognizable too, and a lot of the time you can even guess subgenre: historical, paranormal, romantic suspense, comedy, &c. Which is something I love. I think it’s amazing how genres and subgenres develop their own style and culture and conventions that a community of writers and readers can play with and follow and subvert and love and laugh at and share and make their own.

I love fake books and book titles within novels, too, so long as it’s done with affection–for example, The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death in Ellen Kushner’s Riverside novels.

I also love when real period titles get a mention. In In for a Penny, my hero reads Chronicles of an Illustrious House; or the Peer, the Lawyer, and the Hunchback. That’s an actual book published by the Minerva Press in 1816, and it’s much funnier than anything I could have come up with on my own!

Of course, it’s not foolproof. For example, when I first saw the movie poster for “Immortal Beloved,” I was CONVINCED it was going to be a vampire movie. You’ve got the intense 19th century guy in a red cravat, the beautiful women with chokers, and of course, the name–“Immortal Beloved.” (Obviously, I knew nothing about the life of Beethoven.) I was completely stunned at being wrong. All the signs were there!

Does anyone else make up titles for books you’ll never write? And if so, what are your titles?

And was there ever a time you were fooled by a title?

I have not the heart to disfigure my heroes and heroines by costumes so hideous

One of my favorite artists is Kate Beaton. She draws whimsical, energetic, hilarious webcomics–and a lot of them have historical subjects! One of my favorite Regency-themed ones is this one about Prinny.

Anyway, when I was visiting New York a few months ago and went to meet my editor Leah, I wore my Napoleon-eating-cookies t-shirt. Alissa, an assistant editor at Dorchester, asked me about it, so I sent along a couple of comics with my contract. (Okay I need to take a moment. Typing “my contract” is still very exciting for me.)

So Leah went to the Museum of Comics and Comic Arts festival and MET her! I am so, so jealous. Kate even drew her a cute sketch of Jane Austen being long-suffering about the hot men in her head and their unreasonable demands. Check it out here in Leah’s blog!

One of the things I love about Kate Beaton is the way she draws historical clothing. She captures so much personality and period detail with a few simple lines. And this probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but I love historical clothing. I’ll admit to a soft spot for Georgian fashion (powder and patch!), but I really, really adore Regency-era stuff too.

Guess who hated Regency fashion? Thackeray. His novel Vanity Fair takes place over about ten or fifteen years (not sure exactly) surrounding the Battle of Waterloo. The recent movie with Reese Witherspoon had FABULOUS costumes–Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ haircut in that movie is one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen, and I’m not even a big fan of his. But when Thackeray drew his illustrations, he used contemporary (late 1840s) clothing. Here’s his explanation:

“It was the author’s intention, faithful to history, to depict all the characters of this tale in their proper costume, as they wore them at the commencement of this century. But when I remember the appearance of people in those days, and that an officer and lady were actually habited like this–

I have not the heart to disfigure my heroes and heroines by costumes so hideous; and have, on the contrary, engaged a model of rank dressed according to the present fashion.”

I have always found this absolutely hilarious, because to me, 1840s clothes are SO much less attractive.

But remember how, until a couple of years ago, everyone was so hideously embarrassed by the eighties? It was impossible to look at eighties fashion and find it even remotely attractive. And now you see sort of modernized, sexy depictions of eighties fashion around sometimes, and the nineties are starting to seem a little embarrasing (oh dear God, the shoulderpads! the HAIR! Watch an episode of “Lois and Clark” sometime and you’ll see what I mean).

When I was in elementary school (early 90s) there was NOTHING more horrifying than bellbottoms. I remember watching some kind of educational film made in the seventies when I was about ten, and every time a pair of bellbottoms came on screen the entire class would start laughing. And then flared jeans and peasant blouses came back in style, and “That 70s Show” took 70s fashion and made it look pretty adorable, and pictures of the 70s don’t seem quite so appalling anymore. (They’re still a LITTLE appalling.)

Is there a ten-to-twenty-year rotation on this stuff? Was Regency fashion Thackeray’s equivalent of the eighties?

And how can the same outfit seem so great at the time, so awful a few years later, and kind of cute and nostalgic after a couple of decades?

Rhinestones are a girl's best friend

I recently had a publicity photo taken. I am very pleased with the result:

It’s so very authorly, and the flash didn’t go off when Christine (from Jersey Girl Photography, and she was very nice and reasonably priced, so if you are in Seattle and looking for a photographer, check her site out!) took it so it’s very high-contrast. It looks kind of like it’s on the faded cover of a ’70s paperback, and I LOVE it even though I feel a little silly and like I’m about to introduce Masterpiece Theater or something. (That leather chair I’m sitting in, which lives in our living room, is actually really ratty, and when I sit in it, it tries to slide me off onto the floor.)

I love author photos. I love seeing how people choose to represent themselves publicly, and how an author’s appearance meshes with their work. I think my favorite author photo ever is this one of Barbara Cartland:

Look how fabulous she is! Yeah, it’s flashy, and overwhelmingly pink, but I sincerely love it, and I hope that someday I’m confident enough to have a photo that over-the-top taken of myself. Maybe in red brocade. Are any of those diamonds, do you think? I know she could have afforded it, but at the same time I am programmed to think “rhinestones” when I see something like that.

That photo appears on the back of a book by her I purchased at the Library Book Sale a couple of years ago, called The Romance of Food. It’s one of the best book sale purchases I have ever made. The inside front cover describes it as “a collection of recipes which will revive even the most jaded lover and put a song in the heart of the most enraptured[…]Also, to show just how irresistible to the eye as well as to the palate are dishes such a Flower of the Heart, Summer Splendor and Fleur de Lis d’Amour, they and many others have been photographed at her own home, one of the most romantic settings in England.”

On page 12, we learn:

“Some of the youngest-looking men on the screen and stage declare they owe their youthful appearance to a large consumption of liver and kidneys. Pope Pius V, famous for his aphrodisiacal dishes, originated a pie in which layers of sliced bull’s testicles alternated with ground lamb kidneys.”

Here are some of the best photos:

The caption for that one reads: “An exotic creature from the deep, the color of two red lips, which can invite, provoke, and surrender.”

And this one is just for Susanna Fraser, my critique partner and favorite Wellington fangirl:

“Beef Wellington: England’s greatest General who defeated Napoleon and a plate worthy of his name in the Battle of Love.”

Some other great captions:

“Noisette of Lamb with Baby Vegetables: What woman does not long to be carried like a lamb in the arms of the man she loves.”

“Gypsy Magic and Imperial Splendor: The gypsies wandering romantically through the Countryside make watercress soup but the Russians with fire and passion prefer Borsch.”

“Duck with Orange and Grand Marnier Sauce: A plate of Chinese magic in whose life the duck has always had a very special place.”

“Normandy Pheasant: The leaves of Autumn fall from the trees but the beautiful exotic pheasant, who comes from China, delights the sportsman and surprisingly the sportswoman.”

“Mocha Chocolate Cake, Black Currant Gateau and Meringues: An English tea; how many men have been beguiled and captivated by a soft voice offering them a meringue?”

Regency starter pack

My agent, Kevan Lyon, loves historical fiction, but the Regency isn’t one of the periods she usually gravitates towards. After telling me about some books about the Elizabethan era that she’d been loving recently (Innocent Traitor and The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir), she asked if I had any recommendations for her. However, at that moment my brain was mostly jumping up and down screaming “I CAN HAZ AGENT! I CAN HAZ AGENT!” so I said I’d get back to her. Narrowing it down was tough, but here it is, my personal Regency starter pack:

1. Jane Austen. Obviously. Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are the most famous and the best, but Northanger Abbey is probably my personal favorite. It’s a hilarious parody and critique of Gothic novels, and more good-natured than some of her later books. Also, it contains a defense of popular novels which will never not make me chair-dance with delight. Here is an excerpt from the first page:

“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be a heroine. […]She had a thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without color, dark lank hair, and strong features;–so much for her person;–and not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind. She was fond of all boys’ plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush. Indeed she had no taste for a garden; and if she gathered flowers at all, it was chiefly for the pleasure of mischief–at least so it was conjectured from her always preferring those which she was forbidden to take.”

2. Georgette Heyer, inventer of the Regency Romance genre. To be honest, I tend to prefer her Georgians–The Black Moth is one of my favorite romances of all time. But my other favorite of hers is the Regency-set The Grand Sophy (which seems to be currently out of print! The link goes to the new edition from Sourcebooks, which is coming out this summer, but if you don’t want to wait there are used copies everywhere).

Unlike in a lot of Heyer’s books, the hero and the heroine in this one are complete equals. In fact, Sophy frequently gets the best of Charles. She gets the best of EVERYBODY. She is awesome, funny and bossy and good-hearted and independent and brave and smart. Stuffy, honorable, macho Charles is quite lovable as well. An excerpt:

“You will scarcely drive yourself about the town in a curricle!” he said. “Nor do I consider a high-perch phaeton at all a suitable vehicle for a lady. They are not easy to drive. I should not care to see any of my sisters making the attempt.”

“You must remember to tell them so,” said Sophy affably. “Do they mind what you say to them? I never had a brother myself, so I can’t know.”

[…]”It might have been better for you if you had, cousin!” he said grimly.

“I don’t think so,” said Sophy, quite unruffled. “The little I have seen of brothers makes me glad that Sir Horace never burdened me with any.”

“Thank you! I know how I may take that, I suppose!”

“Well, I imagine you might, for although you have a great many antiquated notions I don’t think you stupid, precisely.”

3. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. Not a romance, but an alternate history novel. Magic has long been gone from England, although legend says that one day the Raven King will return to bring it back. Then two men develop the ability to do real magic. Very long but completely absorbing, with a huge and endearing cast of characters (which includes wonderful female characters and a black character without ever softening or ignoring the social realities of the time). The ending of this book is one of the most satisfying conclusions to a novel I’ve ever read.

The historical voice in this book is AMAZING–and not just the Regency part, although that’s when the action takes place. There are footnotes that include “excerpts from historical accounts,” “folk songs,” &c., and the tone and diction of each one is note-perfect. Here’s the pseudo-folk ballad, “The Raven King”:

“Not long, not long my father said
Not long shall you be ours
The Raven King knows all too well
Which are the fairest flowers

The priest was all too worldly
Though he prayed and rang his bell
The Raven King three candles lit
The priest said it was well

Her arms were all too feeble
Though she claimed to love me so
The Raven King stretched out his hand
She sighed and let me go

This land is all too shallow
It is painted on the sky
And trembles like the wind-shook rain
When the Raven King goes by

For always and for always
I pray remember me
Upon the moors, beneath the stars
With the King’s wild company.”

4. The Temeraire series, by Naomi Novik. The first one is the brilliantly-titled His Majesty’s Dragon. They’re generally marketed as “Patrick O’Brian with dragons,” which is more or less accurate, and I personally didn’t need to hear more to be completely sold. I mean, PATRICK O’BRIAN WITH DRAGONS. But the label doesn’t quite capture the uniqueness and inventiveness of the books. Novik’s historical voice fills me with envy and the books in the series build on each other in a really interesting way. And since they’re alternate history, she’s able to include some female fighters in a believable, appropriate-to-the-time way.

5. Lord of Scoundrels, by Loretta Chase. Chase is probably my favorite Regency romance author and this is one of my favorite romances ever. Her books are character-driven, well-researched, witty, sexy…I could go on but I’d probably embarrass myself. She also experiments with time and settings a little more than I’m used to–for example, Lord of Scoundrels isn’t technically Regency since it takes place in the late 1820s, and a number of her other books take place in India, Central Europe, Italy, &c. An excerpt:

“Every man at the party had examined, at leisure and close quarters, that curving whiteness [the heroine’s bare shoulders and cleavage].

While Dain, like the Prince of Darkness they all believed him to be, stood outside lurking in the shadows.

He did not feel very satanic at the moment. He felt, if the humiliating truth be told, like a starving beggar boy with his nose pressed to the windows of a pastry shop.”

I love that passage, but I realize that perhaps it doesn’t capture the book’s brilliance or the hero’s incredible appeal. However, on trying to s
kim through the book to find a better one, I…read about thirty pages before realizing what had happened. So.

6. Brighter than the Sun, by Julia Quinn. I love marriage of convenience stories, and this is one of my favorites. The hero and heroine are just both so charming, and the story is sweet and romantic and funny.

“Charles began to struggle against his bindings. ‘If you harm a hair on her head…’

‘Charles, I just told you I’m going to kill her,” [SPOILER: villain’s name redacted] said with a chuckle. ‘I shouldn’t worry too much about her hair, were I you.'”

7. Sorcery and Cecilia, by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. An epistolary Regency with two awesome heroines and magic. I read this book when I was maybe ten or eleven, because I was obsessed with Wrede’s children’s books, the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. I had never yet read a Regency romance and didn’t get a lot of the jokes, and I still soul-bonded with this book at first reading. Re-reading it later was like the icing on the cake of awesome. My first attempt at writing romance was actually writing in-character letters with a friend in imitation of this book. Plus, it has one of my favorite cravat jokes in it:

“The Marquis listened politely to my commonplaces about the weather, but I thought I detected some amusement in his reserve. At first I assumed the wind had done something to my hair. Then I realized Oliver was not merely standing, mute as a block, at my elbow, but was staring–positively gaping–at the Marquis.

The Marquis glanced from me to Oliver and said, almost too solicitously, ‘Are you feeling quite well, Mr. Rushton?’

‘Oh–quite well, thank you,’ replied Oliver, coloring up. ‘Only–I was admiring the way you tie your cravat. What do you call that fashion?’

The Marquis regarded Oliver with bland composure. ‘I call it “the way I tie my cravat.”‘”

8. The Pink Carnation series, by Lauren Willig. The first one is The Secret History of the Pink Carnation. Chick lit/historical romance/Scarlet Pimpernel fanfiction, with the framing portions narrated by Eloise Kelly, a history Ph.D. candidate doing dissertation research in England; every book gets a new historical hero and heroine, with each couple somehow connected to the English spy, the Pink Carnation. I knew I would love these books from the very first chapter of the historical part of the book:

“When Amy was ten, the illustrated newsletters announced that the Scarlet Pimpernel had retired upon discovery of his identity–although the newsletters were rather unclear as to whether they or the French government had been the first to the get the scoop. SCARLET PIMPERNEL UNMASKED! proclaimed the Shropshire Intelligencer. Meanwhile The Cosmopolitan Lady’s Book carried a ten-page spread on ‘Fashions of the Scarlet Pimpernel: Costume Tips from the Man Who Brought You the French Aristocracy.'”

I also recently discovered Joanna Bourne and Elizabeth Hoyt–two relatively new authors who write well-researched, fresh, and satisfying historical romance with strong, unique heroines and amazing sexual tension. I’m excited to catch up on their books.

(I was going to include non-fiction, too, but then I realized that the non-fiction I read for my books tends to be too specialized for general recommendations–for example, one of my favorite research books for In for a Penny was the out-of-print title The Genesis of Modern Management: A Study of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain, by Sidney Pollard. If you need to know about contemporary accounting practices, I recommend it highly!)

What are your can’t-do-without Regency books? What would go in your starter pack?