Q & A with Tessa Arlen – Author of Death Sits Down to Dinner

Death Sits Down to Dinner by Tessa Arlen x 200Please 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!

Welcome Tessa!

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. Continue reading

Rutherford Park: A Novel, by Elizabeth Cooke – A Review

Rutherford Park: A Novel, by Elizabeth Cooke 2013From the desk of Christina Boyd

It you are a fan of Downton Abbey and are jonesing for a Grantham family-like fix until season four premieres next January on PBS, Elizabeth Cooke’s latest novel Rutherford Park might be just the ticket. Set during the Edwardian era at the eponymous estate in the Yorkshire countryside, the Cavendish family are as wealthy, titled, and drama-filled as the Grantham’s, yet we are privileged to be reading a book, as opposed to watching a screenplay, so the author’s historical detail, characterizations and compelling narrative make it even more intriguing

Rutherford Park is the seat of the Cavendish family who live their lavish lives by strict rules and obligation. Not surprisingly, the beautiful Lady Octavia Cavendish is lonely and bored, even somewhat envies the servants for their work. Her husband William, bound by the obligations of his title and his vows, unknowingly feels a similar discontent. “They saw him as some sort of fixed being, a symbol, a caricature. Octavia too, perhaps, in her great wool-and-velvet shawl with her pretty little straw-colored boots under a cream dress. They were both a sort of monument, he supposed: not real in the same way that the laborers were real…” p. 52. Later when Octavia suspects William of an affair with a longtime family acquaintance from Paris, the last remnants of a charmed world seemed to disappear. Continue reading

The Ashford Affair: A Novel, by Lauren Willig – A Review

Image of the book cover of The Ashford Affair, by Lauren Willig © 2013 St. Martin’s PressFrom the desk of Christina Boyd

In a departure from her Napoleonic spy romances of the Pink Carnation Series, New York Times bestselling author Lauren Willig ventures into new territory with The Ashford Affair. Entwining one generation’s story with that of another, from post-Edwardian British society to modern-day Manhattan to a coffee farm in Kenya, the long veiled secrets of a woman are unraveled.

Clementine Evans, a focused, driven law associate on the cusp of making partner in a large Manhattan firm, attends her beloved grandmother Adeleine’s 99th birthday and is accidentally enlightened to a family secret. At 34, Clemmie, feeling like her life is nothing but a 70-plus hour work week, and a failed engagement, this intrigue becomes more than a distraction to the un-fulfilling, lonely details of her days.

Clemmie slid the picture back into the drawer. There was another underneath it, a studio portrait of a woman, her head tilted. Her pale hair was crimped in stylized waves around her face and her pale eyes gazed soulfully into the distance. She looked, somehow, strangely familiar, her cheekbones, the shape of her lips, as if Clemmie had seen her somewhere before.” p. 65.

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To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace – A Review

Image of book cover of To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace (2012)From the desk of Laura A. Wallace. 

Originally published in 1989, this 2012 re-issue of To Marry and English Lord is an attractive trade paperback edition by Workman Publishing. Promoted as “an inspiration for Downton Abbey,” Julian Fellowes, the screenplay writer who created the series, has been quoted as saying that he was reading this book when approached about writing the series, and that the first character he conceived for it was Cora, Countess of Grantham, an American heiress.

This book has long been on my “to acquire and read” list so I was really looking forward to finally reading it. I found it to be fairly light reading. The chapters are divided up into short sub-headings, sprinkled with lots of side-bar quotations and tid-bits (at least one on every page), and interspersed with little mini-articles on every third or fourth page. Illustrations are copious; decorations are Victorian and Edwardian. Overall it presents a great deal of factual information in a very digestible way.

This is the sort of book that serves as an introduction to a topic, and a launching pad for further research. (It is the type of book that novelists unfortunately use as a primary source, but that is a rant for another time.) It has no footnotes or endnotes, but does have a good selective bibliography which includes a list of period fictional works. The index is good (if imperfect) and there are excellent appendices, including a “Register of American Heiresses” and a “Walking Tour of the American Heiresses’ London” which are handy references.

The text is organized in a loosely chronological way. It begins with the origins of Anglomania (the 1860 U. S. visit of the young Prince of Wales) and the beyond-Almack’s-despotic exclusivity of Old New York “Knickerbocker” society which ruthlessly excluded new money. So the first set of snubbed wives and daughters left New York for Paris and then London in the 1870s, where they scored aristocratic English husbands, got themselves into the Prince of Wales’s social set, and rarely bothered to cross the Atlantic again.

This first set was comparatively small, comprising only about half a dozen women, and it is they who earned the sobriquet “The Buccaneers.” The most famous girl in this first wave was Jennie Jerome, who married Lord Randolph Churchill and became the mother of Sir Winston Churchill.

But that was just the tip of the spear of the “American Invasion.” The ranks grew steadily and kept up the pace until the death of Edward VII in 1910, after which it trickled off and ended with World War I. I had not realized, until reading this book, that the invasion was so extensive. There were at least two dozen who married into the peerage itself, and dozens more who married younger sons, baronets, M.P.s, and gentry. The “Register” at the back of the book lists about 115 of them, and this list, of course, cannot be exhaustive.

It was not just their pots of money that made these women so attractive to Englishmen.  Their manners were free, easy, and confident, the complete opposite of those of demure, shy English girls. They were well-educated and very well-dressed, usually by Worth.  They were pretty, too, their very lack of “breeding” apparently considered a bonus by their targets, if not by their mamas (appealing at a genetic level, perhaps?). The Prince of Wales loved them, and where he led, everyone followed.

I did find a few factual errors, an occasional absurd assertion, and a couple of errors in titles usage (of course), but overall the information presented seems solid. I encourage readers to use this book as a spring platform to explore other works, whether Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough’s memoirs, the novels of Wharton, James, and Hardy, or perhaps some of the lesser-known novels of the day. (The latter are featured in a mini-article, but not listed in the bibliography.) The book nicely provides the most general background material to improve enjoyment of the portraits of Sargent (there are hundreds on Wikimedia Commons) or of the costume dramas to which we are all highly addicted.

4 out of 5 Stars

To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace
Workman Publishing (2012)
Trade paperback (403) pages
ISBN: 978-0761171959

Cover image courtesy © Workman Publishing Group; text © 2012 Laura A. Wallace

Summerset Abbey: A Novel, by T. J. Brown – A Review

Summerset Abbey, by T. J. Brown (2013)From the desk of Christina Boyd

Now that the third season of Downton Abbey has ended and left us quite reeling, what better balm to soothe our broken hearts than this new Edwardian series, Summerset Abbey by debut writer T. J. Brown. The year is 1913, the prelude to WWI, and three young women gently pursue their life’s hopes and desires, surrounded by the tacit convention of society. From almost page one, this historical fiction begins to weave its web as Sir Philip Buxton, who has raised his two beautiful daughters alongside the daughter of their governess, who is much like a sister to them, dies. Now the girls must abandon all they know, their Bohemian lifestyle, household, and modern manners to live under the charge of their traditional Edwardian uncle at his extensive estate, Summerset Abbey.

Raised to esteem the person and not riches or rank, Rowena and Victoria encounter their first snag when they learn that although they will be welcomed to Summerset, their “sister” Prudence Tate is not, as she is but the daughter of a governess. In a rash moment, and fearing they might lose Prudence forever, Rowena claims they must have a lady’s maid and solicits Prudence for the job. Although claiming it is but temporary until Rowena comes into her own money and can provide for them all, balancing loyalty while attempting to fashion out a place for herself becomes her true cross to bear. “How independent had she been, really? She knew nothing of finances and had never bothered to ask. She’s had all of the freedom, none of the responsibility, and stupidly, she’d never even know what to ask for. She’d been selfish, thoughtlessly flitting from one whimsy to another, never learning anything useful. No wonder her father had given financial responsibility to his brother.” Rowena’s intentions are honorable but to have her so-called sister relegated below stairs, with the duties entailed upon Prudence, is a cruelty “suspended between upstairs and downstairs worlds of Summerset, and truly belonging to neither.”
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