Please help me welcome historical mystery author Tessa Arlen to Austenprose today during her blog tour of her new novel, Death Sits Down to Dinner, the second book in her Lady Monfort series.
Firstly, I want to congratulate Tessa on her recent nomination for the Agatha Award for her debut novel, Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman. I enjoyed it tremendously, and obvious others did as well. Set at an Edwardian era English country manor house, it is the first novel in the Lady Montfort series. Death Sits Down to Dinner was released on March 29th, 2016 and is set in London. The two novels are now Town and Country bookends!
Comparisons of your novels to Downton Abbey were inevitable. When were you first inspired to write a mystery novel, and why did you select Edwardian era English aristocrats and their servants as your main characters?
I have always loved English history and in particular the short window of time we call the Edwardian era (1901-1914). It was an era of great innovation in all areas, but there was a tremendous leap forward in fine arts, the arts and crafts movement and the performing arts. The last decades of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th centuries saw huge innovations in communication, transportation and manufacturing, but I think the early 1910s were rich in societal changes: the fight for the women’s franchise became decidedly nasty with the breakaway from women’s suffrage movement of the Women’s Social and Political Union (Suffragettes). The Irish were becoming more assertive about Home Rule; there was a Liberal government hell bent on social reform and taxing the landowners to provide funds for those changes, and the House of Commons broke the power of veto in the House of Lords which meant that bills for social reform could be passed more quickly. But the rich had never been richer nor the poor more desperate. I thought it a perfect era to write a murder mystery!
I sat myself down to write the book that eventually became Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman in 2008. It was really an exercise in whether I could actually write a full length novel. I wanted my two main characters to come from opposite ends of the class spectrum so they might represent the rigid caste distinctions of the time. Combined with this was my love of the Golden Age of mystery, where the writer gathered a group of ecccentrics together, isolated them in a country house, or on an island, or even on board an ocean liner and turned up the heat with a spot of murder. I was not in the least influenced by Downton, but I was very happy for it to introduce my book to a group of people who were already in love with this time.
Like most cozy mysteries, Death Sits Down to Dinner has a large cast of unique characters, many of which are based on real people. Can you share the guest list and their importance in society and the novel with us?
Death Sits Down to Dinner starts with the 39th birthday celebration for Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, who has been busily beefing up the navy and has created the Royal Naval Air Service in anticipation of a possible war with Germany. He is a very ambitious individual, certainly witty and charismatic enough to hold the throng at dinner with his anecdotes. His character becomes the fulcrum for the murder, and I can’t really tell you any more about his involvement in the novel than that!
I wanted to show how self-indulgent and sophisticated the rich and titled were at this time and so I used their favorite venues in London to show them off and to introduce some of the larger than life Edwardians of the time. I chose two grand dames of society: Maud, Lady Cunard, with her fashionable London salon to which only important, famous or fascinating people were invited, and Gladys, the Marchioness of Ripon, who single handedly rescued the Royal Opera House from bankruptcy and made it not only a going concern but one of the places to be seen in London.
Both these women had compelling personalities, Maud because she had a tongue like a razor and Gladys because she was not only exquisitely beautiful but was an immensely capable businesswoman and patron of the arts. It was Gladys who discovered Nijinsky and the Ballet Russe and introduced them to London as part of the coronation celebrations for King George, but she was also the power behind the great diva of the time Nellie Melba. Maud was such a dynamo in society, but quite a terrifying hostess, that the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, forbade his senior cabinet ministers from attending dinner parties at her house because she lured them into disclosing state secrets.
These two women were not particularly good friends, and they were both infatuated with Sir Thomas Beecham, a gifted and self-taught musician who was rich enough to own his orchestra, and who was the director of the Royal Opera House. Blessed with a stupendous ego Sir Thomas was a gorgeous looking individual whose wit and quick repartee made him immensely popular and very desirable to women. He was the heir to the Beecham’s Powders products, a cure all for headache and constipation and because he was so rich he called all the shots at both His Majesty’s Theater and The Royal Opera House. He had a lifelong feud with the superstar Nellie Melba, who was not above taking off her shoes at rehearsal and throwing them at members of the orchestra or her conductor, Sir Thomas, if she felt they were slowing the pace and tempo of her aria.
It was not unusual for women in high society to be active in charitable organizations not just as patrons for the arts but also for organizations to support unmarried mothers, the rescue of women from prostitution to live ‘useful and respectable’ lives, and homes for the orphaned children of the destitute. The theme of this book is not just about the paranoia of being on the edge of war, but also about a prestigious charity for orphans.
Which character in Death Sits Down to Dinner was the most challenging to write? Were there any characters that you wanted to kill off during the writing process, but refrained? Is there a character that you would invite to your own dinner party?
I really did not like Maud Cunard and I had to work hard not to fixate on her many unlikable qualities. Even though she could be very witty and entertaining, there was always such malice in Maud. Everything I read about her emphasized that she really was a first class bitch, but she did have remarkable energy! I think at one time I entertained the idea of bumping her off, but of course the real Maud lived well into her eighties so it would have been anachronistic to have murdered her. She was pretty much abandoned by society and lived a very lonely existence in her later years.
I am not sure I could cope with some of these rather overwhelming real-life personalities around the dining table in my humble little cottage. So I am not sure who I would invite to dinner. Probably one of my fictitious characters! I love the character of the wealthy financier Aaron Greenberg; he is very self-aware, deeply kind and is passionate about music and the arts for all the right reasons. And of course I would be delighted to eat any meal with my two main characters Lady Montfort and Mrs. Jackson. Actually, I think the pair of them have joined us for dinner, in spirit, many times!
The historical detail in Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman was remarkable. It is obvious that you enjoy living in the past. Can you share some of your favorite sources that inspired or offered important information during your research for the Lady Montfort series?
“The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources!” says some unknown and rather un-generous individual. But I am willing to share!
I read, and still read, heaps of books both historical non-fiction and the literary fiction of the time. Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower fixed the politics and societal changes of the early decades of the 20th century wonderfully well for me. I also read Vita Sackville-West’s The Edwardians which was useful for understanding more about those colossal country houses and the outrageous snobbery of the time. There was a butler who worked in the 1910s who wrote a book called What the Butler Winked At, which I am glad to say made him a fortune when he retired. It gave me great insight into the claustrophobic and hierarchical life led by servants to families of consequence – I am quite sure Julian Fellowes has read it too! Then I read the fiction of the time because it really helped me understand how people expressed themselves and how they reacted to situations in their lives. The Edwardians were very proper on the outside and very improper in private!
If you could invite authors from history to a formal dinner party hosted by Lady Montfort, who would you include, and why? What would you hope to learn from them during the course of the evening?
Vita Sackville West would be high on my list because she was a well informed and educated gardener and wrote a column on gardening for the Sunday Times –so I could pick her brain about gardening. Whenever I visit my sister in Kent I love to go round Vita’s garden at Sissinghurst. And secondly, she was a tremendous eccentric and didn’t give a damn what anyone thought about her love affair with Violet Treffusis which rocked the Edwardian world of polite society on its hypocritical heels.
Most definitely E.M. Forster. I love Room with a View (someone described it as the perfect comfort book –like hot buttery mashed potato –not a very attractive comparison but I know what was meant by it. And of course Howard’s End because Forster truly lamented the disappearance of the English countryside in the late 19th and early 20th century with the massive sub-urbanization that the train and the motor-car brought about. One of the reasons I live in the past is because I find what we have done to our beautiful natural world is so terribly ugly. I dislike modern architecture immensely –a shopping mall is my idea of hell. So Forster and I would have more than a few things to talk about.
Kenneth Grahame, although he was not a particularly sociable man so he might be a bit of a dud at the dinner table, wrote one of my most favorite books about the Edwardian era: The Wind in the Willows. His characters are beautifully drawn and represent the best and the worst of us and of course the book is a pastoral poem to the beauty of England. I have a feeling that Grahame lived in Wind in the Willows the way I live in mine. I know he lived the lovely area of Cookham Dean in Berkshire England, which is where he based his book and I would love to hear him reminisce about the real country life of Edwardian England.
You have lived in England, Singapore, Cairo, Berlin and many other exotic countries. What brought you to the United States and why did you settle in Bainbridge Island, near Seattle, Washington?
My goodness, how long do you have for my answer? Well, first of all I didn’t choose to live in all those countries they came with my father’s job, but they gave me a very diverse childhood and I am grateful for it. So, briefly! I came to the U.S. and worked for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee in H.R. where I interviewed my future husband for a job! We ‘discovered’ the beauties of the Pacific Northwest and in particular Bainbridge Island and moved here decades ago. As soon as we had a family I wanted nothing to do with city-life, but we didn’t want to be too isolated. Bainbridge is a pretty island, a short ferry ride from downtown Seattle. So here we are. I think the Pacific Northwest is the closest I can get to the English climate –you might have heard it rains here a lot –so good for the skin and for gardening.
Besides writing, what are you passionate about?
Well I am English, so I have been blessed/cursed with the gardening gene. I love my garden. In the summer we eat every meal out on the terrace when the weather is fine. I do a lot of writing in my head as I labor in the perennial beds! I also love nature –and hiking with our dogs, and I enjoy cooking. I really appreciate the simple things in life.
What is next for Tessa Arlen? Will we be sleuthing with Lady Monfort again?
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s press have contracted four books so far in the Lady Montfort series. I have just turned in Book 3 to Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press titled A Death by Any Other Name. And in about a month I will start on Book 4. But in between times I have been working on a standalone historical fiction about a young woman who came of age during the Great War and her experiences during that terrible time. So we will see what happens with that one.
Tessa Arlen is the author of the Lady Montfort mystery series set in the early 1900’s. She is the daughter of a British diplomat, and had lived in or visited her parents in Singapore, Berlin, the Persian Gulf, Beijing, Delhi and Warsaw by the time she was sixteen. She came to the U.S. in 1980 and worked as an H.R. recruiter for the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee for the 1984 Olympic Games, where she interviewed her future husband for a job. She lives on Bainbridge Island, in Washington.
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Death Sits Down to Dinner (Lady Montfort Mystery #2), by Tessa Arlen
Minotaur Books (2016)
Hardcover & eBook (320 Pages)
Book cover image courtesy of Minotaur Books © 2016; text © 2016 Tessa Arlen, Austenprose.com