Friday, October 14, 2016

Ramblings about my life, my father, history, and romance

Since I haven't published much of anything lately, I am posting a speech I made in Summer 2015. it's probably far too long!

NEW YORK, JULY 22 2015
It’s a great honor to be invited to address the Beau Monde Conference and a particular thrill to do it in New York. I immigrated here some decades ago and it remains my favorite city.  Any other spiritual New Yorkers here?  Wrong crowd maybe. How about spiritual Londoners? It’s wonderful to be in a room with this marvelous collection of ladies devoted to romances set in the  Regency era.
I couldn’t remember how long I’ve been a member of the Beau Monde so I checked and discovered that it’s just about ten years. I joined RWA and the Beau Monde when I finished my first manuscript. I have great respect for the enthusiasm, knowledge and, yes, occasional lunacy of the membership.
You are a very opinionated bunch and not afraid to admit it. Although we write about an era where everyone was supposedly extremely polite and proper, the ladies and occasional gentleman of the Beau Monde are never afraid to disagree –with the utmost politesse, of course. I am both enlightened and entertained when the loop gets into it on a subject, often some minute detail about horses, or costumes, or officers’ commissions, or glassware, or gloves. Or extremely strong not to say frank opinions on sexuality or the demands of historical accuracy.
Later I shall be talking a little about how Regency romance is a big tent and there’s room for books for all tastes. But these online controversies brighten up the dull, lonely writers’ day. And – unlike most of the internet -  members of the Beau Monde always express themselves in impeccable English and without resort to shouty caps.
This is the first time I’ve ever given a keynote address. I believe they are supposed to be inspirational and encourage listeners to follow their dream. I belong to the Noel Coward school of dream encouragement: Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington.
If you are insane enough to wish to be a published novelist you may look forward to deadlines, rejection, bad reviews, publishers who don’t do what you want, a dirty house, and a spreading rear end, none of which are at all fun. Since a large proportion of this audience already knows this, and the rest of you are undoubtedly going to ignore my excellent advice, I conclude the inspirational portion of my speech here.
Instead, I am going to talk about how I managed to end up in this crazy and – okay I admit it, occasionally satisfying – business.  In particular I want to talk about my beloved father, who died early this year, and the things I learned from him that helped me to become a writer.
We all come to historical romance through a passion for history. Mine certainly started early. I was born in Salisbury, Wiltshire, within view of the cathedral, arguably – and we Salisbury natives will argue this – the most perfect example of Gothic architecture in the world.
My father was a farmer. His farm had been part of a large estate that included a park nominally designed by Capability Brown, though there’s no evidence the famous landscaper spent more than about ten minutes there. At one end of the park lies Old Wardour Castle, a fourteenth century ruin that was blown up in the Civil War.  At the other end is New Wardour Castle, a large Palladian mansion built by the eighth Baron Arundell of Wardour.
The Arundells were a rich and prominent Roman Catholic family. However, and this is a story I wouldn’t tell to anyone except this crowd,  someone got careless and forgot to renew the entail.  When the 8th Lord went heavily into debt as a result of lavish building and art collecting, instead of saying “sorry guys but I can’t sell anything because of the entail,” the family ended up having to dispose of a big portion of his estates and actually pay the tradesmen, shock horror. The fortunes of the family went into slow decline and more land was sold off. My parents bought their farm some time after World War II. By the time I came along the big house was occupied by a girls’ boarding school and the Arundells lived and still do, in a perfectly nice dower house.
The farmhouse, next to an artificial lake and within sight of the Old Castle, had been converted in the 19th century from a classical bathhouse complete with rusticated portico. So I grew up in an eighteenth century folly, a perfect location for a future romance writer.
Wardour was a beautiful and fascinating place to grow up. The local history was part of our DNA. My siblings and I climbed all over the ruins of the Old Castle, pretending to be Lady Blanche Arundell (she was a baroness not the daughter of an earl but everyone called her Lady Blanche. So sue me.) who dressed her ladies up as soldiers to make the Roundheads think the castle was well defended. The area is chock-a-block with stately homes, like Longleat, Stourhead, and Wilton, as well as lesser known mansions.  We went to Bath for shopping and the orthodontist.
Apart from being pickled in historical surroundings, we also had parents, our father in particular, who loved history. My father’s mother was Polish but a native French speaker and he grew up bilingual. He read history at Oxford – as did I – and specialized in the French Revolution. Our house was full of books that reflected his interests.
Here are some specific things I remember learning from him.
~ He taught me how to identify and date the four main styles of English gothic churches, and there was a test.
“Early English?”
“Wrong. Perpendicular.”
~ He taught me to love classical music and opera. BBC Radio 3 was his constant companion and he went to the opera whenever and wherever he could, delighting in collecting obscure performances like Puccini’s Tosca sung in Russian in Warsaw. In his memory, I completed and rewrote an abandoned manuscript about a Regency era opera singer and it makes me sad that he won’t be able to read it. It was published this year as Secrets of a Soprano.
~ Both my parents were dedicated art lovers, with artists on both sides of the family. My father was a talented amateur painter.  For as long as I can remember no museum or gallery was permitted to be passed by unvisited. As a result I am constantly aware of what my characters have the walls of their houses and my last series – the Wild Quartet – was designed around art collecting.
~ How to construct a compost heap.  Hm. Why this you may wonder?  Papa was a brilliant gardener, almost single handedly turning a boggy wilderness into a garden that was open to the public as part of the National Gardens Scheme. When I took up gardening, as one does once one is old enough to have patience for an activity that takes months and years to bear fruit, he came to Vermont and got me organized.  “Building a compost heap,” he said, “is easy. It’s the same principle as a haystack.”  “Who do you think I am? Bathesheba Everdene?” I replied. Since I am not a character from a Thomas Hardy novel, I had to be taught. And dammit if I didn’t include the knowledge in a novel. That one never made it out of the hard drive but my haystack knowledge lurks in the back of my mind and will be put to use one day.
~ My father loved travel and his post-farming career gave him lots of scope. He loved to take his children on his business trips, fitting in churches and museums and galleries between his appointments. I remember an epic trip around France and Italy with one of my sisters. In case you think we weren’t normal teenagers, he complained that we talked only about our diets, our suntans, and the boys that followed us around the sites. However, he was immensely proud of all his children and secretly loved girl talk. He took a great interest in anything we studied. When I took a course at university on post-Restoration English architecture, he organized a tour of country houses of the period such as Chatsworth and Castle Howard, always punctuated by good dinners with lots of wine.
~ Once I showed him a paper I’d written for high school history. He harrumphed a bit then sat me down and showed me how to to plan an essay so that the facts and arguments flowed correctly.  His summary method works well for fiction too. I still use it when I have a tricky and complicated scene to write.
He was very picky about writing. At Stowe School he was taught by the novelist T.H. White, the author of a series of Arthurian novels. He didn’t like White’s books – he had no taste for fantasy and thought Tolkien and J.K. Rowling were rubbish – but he did like elegant prose. He had no patience for academic writing and a couple of books he published on European agricultural policy were quite readable, despite their dry subject matter.
~ My father didn’t read much fiction, apart from Anthony Trollope and Evelyn Waugh. But he was supportive of my aspirations and proud of my books. In his last year or so his reading matter consisted of The Times, The Spectator, The Tablet, and the novels of Miranda Neville.
My mother, who died several years ago, consumed novels by the bucketload so there were always plenty around the house for me. Her reading was eclectic ranging from the classics to thrillers. One summer we both got hooked on the Jalna series by the Canadian Mazo de la Roche, a good long multigenerational saga. But our tastes didn’t always align.
She did not like romance.
She loved Jane Austen – Emma and Mansfield Park were her favorites – but she disapproved of Pride and Prejudice, believing that Mr. Darcy gave girls unrealistic ideas about men.
I always loved my fiction with historical settings, going back to children’s books by writers like Cynthia Harnett and Rosemary Sutcliffe. I glommed Jean Plaidy’s historical novels, especially those about the Tudor and Stuart kings and queens. For a while my career ambition was to be a royal mistress. When I was about twelve my mother returned from a shopping expedition unable to find the Plaidy I wanted and handed me—with a slight sniff of disapproval—Georgette Heyer’s Powder and Patch. Thus began my love affair with romance.
I read all of Heyer but I also liked the smutty historicals like Forever Amber, the Catherine novels of Juliette Benzoni, and the Angelique books, another French series. Juliette Benzoni inspired me to take a course on medieval France and Burgundy at university. I read traditional Regencies by Heyer imitators when I could find them, and the occasional super-shameful Mills and Boon and Barbara Cartland that I kept under my mattress.
How did I progress from a romance reader to a writer.  And why the Regency? Apparently I had early ambitions. When my father moved out of our childhood home, I found a box of school papers that included some early chapters of romances, both historical and contemporary, written in my late teens. They are notable mainly for a complete inability to control backstory.
As for the Regency, it wasn’t because of my education. At school we did the Tudors and Stuarts about ten times, then jumped to 1815, skimmed the Great Reform Bill and on to Gladstone and Disraeli. The long 18th century was, I think, thought too boring for school children except for a few wars.
Wolfe and Quebec, check.
American War of Independence, check.
French Revolution, check.
Battle of Waterloo, check.
And the Reform Bill and the Irish Question were sooo much more interesting. Every fourteen-year-old’s idea of a rattling good time.
I gradually came to the conclusion that what I liked most about history was entertaining personalities in beautiful clothes.
There was Heyer, of course, but I really came to the early 19th century via France. I loved – and still love – French history and went through a major Napoleon phase. (Don’t all hiss.) I started reading the English side. Arthur Bryant’s Age of Elegance is an oldie but goodie that I recommend to anyone new to the period. I picked up a used copy of Creevey’s letters and found the old toadeater an excellent read.
Life and work nipped my budding romance career in the bud. After I graduated, I got a job cataloguing autograph letters and manuscripts in the rare book department at Christie’s auction house in London, in King Street right opposite where Almack’s was located.  My first day I was handed a big box of papers that turned out to be records of a militia regiment in the 1790s. What a great job – I had never been so happy in my life. For this they paid me? Not very much, I may say, but still.
I ended up doing rare books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s in New York, and as you may know, I wrote a series about Regency book collectors.  But that was way in the future.  I married, moved to Vermont, had a daughter, worked in Special Collections at Dartmouth College for a while, and then as a journalist on a small town newspaper, and started a business.  I kind of forgot about romance.  I still occasionally read one, usually a trad Regency, but I missed the bodice ripper era, never read Kathleen Woodiwiss until last year. Then at some point I picked up a Catherine Coulter at a yard sale and I loved it. Whoa! Regency romance with sex. Never mind that the history was a bit wonky. Then I discovered Jo Beverley and Mary Jo Putney and other historical writers of the 1990s.
At some point I decided to try and write one myself. Pretty much every job I ever had involved writing, but always non-fiction. Fiction was immensely liberating. Suddenly I was allowed to Make Stuff Up and it was great. It took about five years from typing the words Chapter One on my first novel until I saw my first book (not the same one) on the table at my local Borders. Borders. Remember them? So much has changed since that day in 2009.
I won’t to go into details about the seismic shift in the publishing business. Despite the stresses of the current market for historical romance, Regency romance is still far and away the most popular period and for that we can all be thankful. I believe that one of the reasons for its enduring popularity is that it now includes such a wide range of books. This year the Beau Monde is celebrating the 80th anniversary of Georgette Heyer’s first Regency. Ebooks and self-publishing have revived the traditional Regency which, ten years ago, was declared dead. And that is awesome. It’s also great that our genre incorporates inspirationals, paranormals, time travel, alternative history, erotica, gay and lesbian romance, and every conceivable variation of the original Regency romance. You can write like Jane Austen or you can write an essentially modern romance set in a playful version of Regency life. Or somewhere in between. There are no limits. It’s up to the writer and the taste of the reader.
None of us writes early nineteenth century books. We don’t have the same language, the same attitudes, and we don’t really know what life was like then. Neither do our readers. We can only make educated guesses based on our own interpretation of the historical record, and we all make our own choices about what to include, what to ignore, what to change. I have come to the conclusion that all discussions about historical accuracy, while often enjoyable, especially among friends, are as fruitless as arguing about whether you like the color blue.  What shade? Is teal green or blue? It is ultimately a matter of taste.
In my spare time I am a bit of political junky. As an analogy to the way we use our common historical setting, I’ve been thinking about the way two different TV series treat American presidential politics.
The West Wing manages to say profound things about our politics and gives the viewer an excellent sense of how the White House and Washington work. And yet much of what happens in that show couldn’t or wouldn’t ever happen in reality. The show concerns a happy band of insiders who stay together through two presidential terms and three elections, best friends with the first family and never leaving their jobs. It wouldn’t and doesn’t happen. Kind of like clubs full of hot dukes. The West Wing simplified politics in the interests of a good story.
Then there is Scandal. Nominally set in the highest level of Washington politics, you have the Oval Office, and the Secret Service and the Chief of Staff and Congress – all the same trappings as The West Wing. But it’s completely unmoored from reality. (Perhaps Scandal is more like a club full of hot dukes.) Spoiler alert for those who haven’t discovered this cracktastic show: In a presidential election there are three candidates, all of whom have committed murder, including of a Supreme Court Justice. It’s entertaining soap opera with barely a veneer of truth. There’s room for both The West Wing and Scandal – they are different fictional interpretations of the same real world.

Writers do the same thing. Think of some of the stars of Regency romance. Julia Quinn, Mary Balogh, Stephanie Laurens, Julie Anne Long, to name a random few, all play in the Regency sandbox and come up with different and distinctive versions of life in early nineteenth century Britain. What they have in common is an ability to write stories that grip the reader and characters readers want to know. No author is loved by all readers but if you create a world that appeals to enough of them, they will keep coming back and you will succeed.


  1. Miranda, I loved this speech when I first heard you present at the Beau Monde Conference, and I love it even more now. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  2. Wonderful! You should write a novel or novella about your childhood, it sounds grand!