Essays

ESSAYS

For those interested in spending some time in the Regency period, I’ve included a number of essays I’ve contributed to various blogs. Feel free to read them here, or follow the links to the original post.


The Heart of the Story

A short essay about my research process for “On A Desert Shore”
Originally published in Marilyn’s Musings, November 21, 2015

I never know where a novel will take me. My mystery series, set in Regency England, requires copious research that has a way of sending me off on byways and detours. One hard lesson learned has been that I have to trust the process. Sooner or later the logic and, more importantly, the heart of a story emerge. Often this happens later rather than sooner. Basically, there’s a lot of floundering involved. Sometimes I stumble on magical tidbits that seem to shout, “Pick me! I’ve been lying here in this dusty book for centuries” (or nowadays hiding in Google Books).

And that’s really fun.

Context is especially crucial in a historical mystery. Historical novelists ask readers to believe that our characters inhabit a world that is long gone yet still echoes down the years into the present. It’s tricky. If a writer tells everything she knows, the book sags under the weight of the research. I try to write from within that early 19th-century mindset without ever forgetting that the characters and the mystery are the main event.

My most recent book, On a Desert Shore, presented a special challenge in that it explores race and attitudes toward slavery—the great moral issue of the Georgian era. Many of the characters in this book are from Jamaica, an astoundingly savage society that was coming under increasing scrutiny in the “mother country” for its cruelty toward the slave population. Though England liked to think of itself as civilized and enlightened, my research revealed that many English men and women were well aware of the gap between national mythology and brutal reality in Britain’s far-flung empire.

On a Desert Shore is about what happens in England when rigid boundaries between different races and cultures dissolve. One of the suspects in Bow Street Runner John Chase’s murder investigation is a biracial teenager named Marina Garrod, born to a wealthy Jamaican plantation owner and his slave-housekeeper. This young woman becomes a pampered heiress in London society, discovering that she can’t leave her past behind. It took me a while to get to know Marina in order to pursue my goal of telling her story with empathy and respect, but once I finally figured out that she is the heart of the story, everything fell into place. There were a number of these biracial children whose fathers sent them “home” to England, where they might hope to encounter less open prejudice and live in a free society. On the whole these children were the lucky ones. While Britain had halted its participation in the slave trade in 1807, slavery itself endured for several decades more in the colonies. And, shockingly, the government provided thousands of ordinary English people with financial compensation when they were forced to free their slaves.

So I never know where a book will take me. But I can be sure that the journey will bring some wrong turns in my quest to get the history and the story right.


The Public Gaze

An essay inspired by “Die I Will Not”
Originally published in Reading the Past, December 1, 2014

Nowadays we are all too familiar with living under the public gaze, but this phenomenon is not new. Set in 1813 London, my novel “Die I Will Not” explores royal scandal, early 19th-centuryjournalism, and dirty politics. As I researched these topics, I became fascinated by the idea of individuals struggling to preserve their privacy under the ubiquitous modern gaze—a gaze feeding voracious scandals that often refuse to die. Perhaps in our own era of 24-hour news cycles trumpeting the latest brouhaha, readers can relate.

I learned that “spin” is by no means a modern concept. It was common in Regency England to insert a “squib,”ull Ó a short, satirical paragraph, in the papers to lampoon one’s enemies, or one could purchase a “puff,” extravagant praise designed to polish up one’s image. The royals were not immune from this scramble for positive press. Indeed, the Prince Regent (later George IV), who was very sensitive to public perception, often sent his secretary Colonel McMahon to the newspapers to bribe or browbeat the editors into withholding or publishing information.

No one experienced the glare of scrutiny more relentlessly than the unpopular Regent and his detested wife Caroline. Both sought to manage their reputations in “the public mind,” and I would argue that both ultimately failed, though, as we shall see, Caroline scored some notable triumphs over her husband. My character Penelope Wolfe also struggles with scandal and a tarnished reputation, at one point waking “to find herself notorious.” Penelope is the daughter of a radical philosopher suspected of treason and murder. She is also the target of sly innuendos about her rocky marriage to a spendthrift artist as well as her relationships to my other sleuths, barrister Edward Buckler and Bow Street Runner John Chase. I found it interesting to parallel her experiences to Caroline’s: two women, two “ull Òinjured mothers” attacked in the press for a presumed loss of virtue.

In Caroline’s case, the Prince had instituted an inquiry into her conduct, which came to be known as the “Delicate Investigation.” Well, it’s hard to imagine anything less “delicate” because the agents were busy interviewing her reputed lovers and accusing Caroline of having borne an illegitimate child. The investigators even grilled the poor woman’s laundry maid and other servants to find out what she’d been up to. But in the end the Regent’s attempt to divorce his wife had failed when she was cleared of the primary charge. Her defender Spencer Perceval summed up what may have been the general view at the time: “I believe the princess to be playful, and incautiously witty, in her deportment; but I prefer that to secret intrigue and infamous practices.” In other words, she had become the sympathetic victim of her royal husband’s scheming. One hack writer even made her the heroine of a Gothic romance.

This Cruikshank caricature depicts George and Caroline as the plump green bags that contained the evidence collected against Caroline in preparation for her trial in the House of Lords.   As the caption aptly puts it, “Ah! sure such a pair was never seen so justly form’d to meet by nature.”  One notices, however, that George is rather more rotund than Caroline.So the nasty scandal that erupted in the spring of 1813 was only the latest salvo in a long-running war between Caroline and George—but this time she fired the first shot. Despite having earned a somewhat qualified verdict of innocence in the Delicate Investigation of 1806, Caroline’s contact with her daughter Charlotte, heiress to the throne, continued to be restricted. In response, Caroline wrote the Regent a letter, and when he declined to read it, she sent this letter to the newspapers, sparking a national uproar. The “Regent’s Valentine,” published on February 10, 1813, masqueraded as an appeal to her husband’s better nature but was actually a wily move on Caroline’s part to drum up public support. By the way, Henry Brougham, the opposition lawyer and politician, was said to have composed this letter for Caroline—for, of course, the Regent’s political enemies, Whigs and radicals alike, were all too eager to make use of his domestic discord for their own purposes. Excerpts from the letter were even printed on commemorative china! When the furor finally subsided, Caroline was the undisputed victor in the publicity battle, the Times having declared her “complete innocence” and the Lord Mayor having organized a proclamation and procession in her honor (according to one source, “the Prince Regent, foaming with impotent rage, found it convenient to go out of town that day”). Amid rumors that he had been planning to revive the Delicate Investigation in yet another vindictive attack on his wife, he essentially slunk away in shame. But by 1814 Caroline had left England for the Continent, where she shocked Europe by frolicking with her Italian servant Bartolomeo Pergami, before returning to England in 1820 to face divorce proceedings in the House of Lords. She beat her husband this time too. After passing the Lords, the divorce bill was abandoned because of the enormous public outcry in her favor. Sadly, Caroline died a few weeks later after trying and failing to storm Westminster Abbey in order to join her husband’s coronation.

And what has been history’s verdict? Dr. Steven Parissien titles his article for the BBC “George IV: A Royal Joke” and quotes from an obituary, which states, “At an age when generous feelings are usually predominant, we find him absorbed by an all-engrossing selfishness, not merely careless of the feelings of others but indulging in wanton cruelty.” Though George is often acknowledged as a patron of the arts, his poor reputation has refused to die, echoing down the centuries, labeling him bloated, dissolute, profligate, and ungrateful. How’s that for an image problem? And though I think that Caroline has fared better under the public gaze, probably because she figures as a persecuted woman, she too has image problems. With some justice, she is often said to have been vulgar, smelly, and promiscuous. I’ve often wondered why anyone could wish for immortality when so often one is left with mud all over one’s face. I wonder too how many of our own 21st-century scandals will live on to become the subject of historical novels.


Becoming a 21st-century author…gradually

Originally published in bookbrowsing, March 2, 2016

Sometimes a world is born when you aren’t paying attention. This was certainly true for me when I took a twelve-year hiatus from my mystery series while I was busy raising my daughter and teaching high school English. I do not regret the time spent in either of these meaningful pursuits. But needless to say, I don’t suggest that authors pursue this path!

I published the first novel in my Regency mystery series, “The Rose in the Wheel”, in 2002, my second, “Blood for Blood”, in 2003. But my third and now my fourth did not see the light of day until 2014 and 2016. If there was extensive social media promotion going on in 2002-03, I do not remember it. I went to the Left Coast Crime conference for mystery fans, had some write-ups in the mainstream press, and put up a website. That’s about it. Other authors in the vanguard were likely doing much more, but at that time neither Facebook nor Goodreads nor Twitter nor digital publishing existed. This truly was a different world.

You can imagine the culture shock when I published “Die I Will Not” in 2014. Suddenly I learned that authors, even quiet, introverted ones, were expected to tackle a list of promotional must-dos that seemed a mile long and strangely exotic, as if I were a visitor in a strange land. And often the advice came across as “do or die” imperatives (ignore the unintended pun on the title of my book, please!).

The imperatives went something like this: You must create a platform to consist of thousands of diehard fans. You must have a newsletter and a blog and tweet x number of times per day. And you must write not one but two or three or even four books every year while constantly “engaging” and showing off your charming personality.

Silly me. I thought it was all about the books. Naively, I thought that books must battle for their audience, be launched to sail away alone in a vast pond, and that classy authors should shut up and stay out of the fray. Hadn’t my mother always told me it isn’t polite to flaunt your accomplishments? “Don’t get a big head,” she used to say.

So I had to learn a brand new approach to the business side of writing. After a while I realized that I could participate more comfortably in this brave new world of publishing if I reframed my idea of promotion, a word I don’t much like. Instead of promoting my books (or worse, myself) online, I decided to view the process as joining a community, becoming a literary citizen in order to fulfill the obligations that come with any job.

It occurred to me recently that I behave on social media rather as I would at a party. I look around for like-minded souls and retreat to a corner with them. In my case, this has involved participation on Goodreads, where it really is all about the books, and on several Facebook discussion boards frequented by people who enjoy historical fiction. On Goodreads I have accumulated a small friends list—but these are readers who have similar tastes and interests. I genuinely enjoy interacting with them while also doing giveaways and blogging on the site.

Also, I venture out to do guest posts on hospitable blogs like this one. I still do not tweet, and I post only occasionally about my books. This approach works for me. I have made some friends, raised my author profile, and become part of a much larger community of readers and writers who share my love of the written word. I am starting to try new promotional tools in my own time and at my own pace.

So my advice to anyone just beginning this journey would be that you shouldn’t think you have to do everything. Find what works for you, what suits your personality and your aspirations, and do that. Take your time. It’s okay to let your author persona unfold gradually. Yes, marketing is indispensable to the 21st-century writer. Yes, we should give our work its best shot by finding a way to let people know it exists. Yes, it’s true that no one can be responsible for our careers but us.

But maybe a slow-building career can work in a fast-paced world.


An English Rose

Originally published in Reading the Past, March 16, 2016

Readers of Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels are familiar with her references to skin care products such as Denmark Lotion or Olympian Dew. A young lady’s fair and blooming complexion could be just as critical to her success as her dowry and social position. Then, as now, those with unsightly spots sought to avoid embarrassment. But the ideal of complexion went much deeper than that. It was, in fact, tied to anxieties about Britain’s Empire, notions of proper Englishness, and the desire to maintain boundaries of class and race.

In my novel “On a Desert Shore”, Marina Garrod receives every advantage of the privileged young lady. Rumored to be the heiress to vast wealth, she debuts in Society with the hope of making an eligible alliance. But to bigoted eyes, there’s a problem. All her father’s money cannot make her into a genuine “English Rose” (pink cheeks and red lips with pale skin)—for Marina is the daughter of a Jamaican planter and his slave-housekeeper. My novel is about Marina’s plight in the England of 1813, a time when attitudes toward race were hardening, in part because of growing fears of cultural and racial contamination.

Her experience as a mixed-race heiress in Georgian England was not unique. In his dissertation entitled Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed Race Migration from the West Indies to Britain, 1750-1820, Dan Livesay estimates that, by the end of the 18th century, as many as a quarter of rich Jamaicans with children of color sent them home to England to live in a free society. On the whole these children were the lucky ones who had escaped the astoundingly brutal and oppressive sugar island. Still, families sometimes challenged the inheritances of their mixed-race kin, and the position of these young people would have been equivocal. It’s difficult to imagine how they might have felt. While Britain had halted its participation in the slave trade in 1807, slavery itself endured for several more decades in the colonies. Apologists for the institution, like Marina’s father, failed to justify a practice that was increasingly seen, according to the poet S.T. Coleridge, as “blotched all over with one leprosy of evil.” Here Coleridge refers to the arguments of West India merchants and slave owners, calling them “cosmetics” designed to conceal a horrible reality.

Deirdre Coleman asserts that the British public of the day had a “fascination with complexion.” And my research revealed that this was especially true of white Creole women (Creole is an ambiguous term that sometimes meant the Blacks of Jamaica and sometimes a person of any race who had spent a lot of time there). I encountered stories of the white Creole women’s attempts to preserve their complexions so that when they returned to England they could seem like legitimate English roses. They wore elaborate sunshades and even flayed their skin with the caustic oil of the cashew nut! Often they created what even some contemporaries called an artificial and unhealthy pallor.

Why? This was a society in which all-powerful white men exploited black women at their own whim and will, a society in which wives were often confronted with the humiliating results of open infidelity—their husbands’ slave children. It was important to the Creole ladies, whose skin could become tanned or weathered in the tropical climate, to maintain strict boundaries through their complexions. In other words, “whiteness” as a marker of status and breeding. But, ironically in this racially mixed society, it might not be possible to determine someone’s precise background just by looking. There might have been little visible difference between a Creole lady and her husband’s mulatta or quadroon concubine.

When a woman named Janet Schaw traveled to North America and the West Indies between 1774-76, she wrote in her diary about putting on and off her delicacy “like any piece of dress.” To me, this points to the performative aspect of femininity. A woman can don a mask of beauty and gentility to further her ends or play her role in society. This is precisely what Marina cannot do to her tormenters’ satisfaction. And yet she is not afraid to express her fellow feeling with African slaves or her contempt for slavery. You will have to read the book to find out what happens after her failed London season. In essence, she is shipwrecked “on a desert shore” in an alien land, even though she is half English and has been mostly reared in England. She is no true English rose.

There’s an unforgettable scene in another novel, an anonymous abolitionist work of 1808 called The Woman of Colour, which introduces Olivia Fairfield, the natural daughter of a West Indian planter and a slave. Like Marina Garrod, Olivia travels to England. In the scene a curious little boy at a tea party compares his hand to Olivia’s, interrogating her about her skin color. Her response: “The same God that made you made me…[as well as my servant Dido, a] poor black woman—the whole world—and every creature in it! A great part of this world is peopled by creatures with skins as black as Dido’s, and as yellow as mine…”

Which leaves us with one of my favorite Shakespearean sonnets, a satiric poem making the point that, after all, what we deem beauty has nothing to do with outward show. After criticizing his beloved for her varied imperfections, including the lack of “roses” in her cheeks, the speaker says: “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare.”

The famous portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray. Belle was the daughter of an enslaved African woman and Sir John Lindsay, a British naval officer. After Lindsay brought his daughter to England, she lived with the Earl of Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, at Kenwood House in Hampstead.

Much speculation has arisen in regard to this portrait, whose artist is uncertain. Why does Belle point at her own cheek in a curiously awkward gesture? Perhaps she calls attention to her contrasting complexion in order to suggest that any difference is only “skin deep.”