It might just be me and the books that cross my lap, but I’ve read a lot of books, historicals specifically, that explore the tension between a hero and heroine of differing classes. From Kleypas’ Secrets of a Summer Night to her latest Mine Till Midnight to Campbell’s Claiming the Courtesan, crossing the class boundary is a big part of the plotline – and a basis for reviews questioning whether the happy ending can be believable if the protagonists are from either side of that boundary.
But either way, all the big kids are doing it. The upcoming Cynster book, Where the Heart Leads, from Stephanie Laurens, features a pair of aristocratic protagonists, with a secondary pair from the working class assisting them in their case. Crossing class barrier seems to be a hot target for establishing tension between protagonists, and I had an opportunity to ask another author playing with that source of tension all about it. So being the nebby wench I am, I took it.
Julia London’s latest book, The Dangers of Deceiving a Viscount is the third book in the Desperate Debutantes trilogy, and features a heroine who is of the upper class, but who is forced to masquerade as a seamstress in the home of a Viscount – he of the dangerous deception. The heroine, Lady Phoebe Fairchild, has been working as a seamstress and gown designer to support her family, and becomes one of the most desirable modistes in London. When she is blackmailed into going to the Viscount of Summerfield’s country home to create gowns for his sisters, said viscount asks her to be his mistress.
Based on that description, as I haven’t yet read the book, I had to bug Ms. London about the secret profession, the class boundary, and writing in general. Like I said, I’m nebby as all hell.
There have been “secret writers,â€ “secret newspaper journalists,â€ and “secret math whizzesâ€ in historical romances I’ve read — but this is my first encounter with a “secretâ€ seamstress. What was your inspiration, or point of access, for having Phoebe engaged in trade secretly, and why sewing?
Julia London: I was hoping you would say secret babiesâ€”wouldn’t that be a great historical romance? Okay, maybe not so much.
I suppose there are so many “secretâ€ occupations because writers try to meld modern sensibilities with historic mores. The fact is, ladies of breeding and wealthâ€”the ones who usually appear as the heroine in historical romancesâ€”were not expected to work or to engage in anything more strenuous than painting or embroidery. If they did “workâ€ it was usually in the pursuit of charitable endeavors. I think that life is appealing to modern women who do it allâ€”wouldn’t it be great to have nothing to do but sit around in cool floor-length gowns and contemplate the clock? Oh yeah!
But only up to a point.
Women don’t like women who are slackers, because most of us aren’t. Women like women who manage to take on something important or meaningful in spite of the confines of their world. As writers, we need those heroines to be doing something, because without something to do all day beside look at the clock, there is not much opportunity for external conflict or to run into that handsome, virile lord.
As for Phoebe, the premise was set up in the first book of the Desperate Debutantes series (The Hazards of Hunting a Duke , The Perils of Pursuing a Prince , the Dangers of Deceiving a Viscount), in which the mother and aunt of the three heroines suddenly dies. Her fortune is snatched up by her second husband (their stepfather), who figures the girls don’t need it as badly as he does. He goes off to France but with a dire warning — when he comes back, they are getting married, if they like it or not. So the three of them, industrious party animals that they are, decide they will snag husbands on their own terms before the stepfather can do it for them. In order to do snag one that will keep them in the style to which they have become accustomed, they must keep up appearances, and appearances means money.
As wellborn young women, they all would have been taught to embroider and sew. So I took it one step further and gave Phoebe her own little Project Runwayâ€”a love of beautiful gowns, a talent for making them, and thus, a way to bring in a little extra cash. But as she was trying to keep up appearancesâ€”that is, lots of money and no need to workâ€”she had to keep it a secret, lest polite society be horrified by her trade, but giving her something that would be the catalyst for putting her in a dashing lord’s house.
Have we run out of variations on the “lady meets lordâ€ plotline, and thus writers looking for more authentic tension are crossing class line to create romantic tension between protagonists?
Julia London: I think it may seem like it sometimes, but I think writers are looking to create more authentic tension, period. Sometimes we find it crossing class lines, but mostly, the books are about emotion, regardless of how it happens. I think what we are seeing is a trend away from the light historical with cute heroines where the hero and heroine meet under the I-will-never-marry-except-for-love! scenario to situations that seem more authentic and real. For example, my next book, The Book of Scandal, is about a married couple who separate after the death of a child until a few years later when circumstances force them together again. They have to reconstruct the scaffolding of their marriage against the backdrop of a scandal. I think a lot of writers are looking for ways to deepen the romance, both the tension and the ultimate falling in love and HEA, and give the books a “realâ€ feel.
In the book, it appears that Phoebe is exposed to treatment to which she’s unaccustomed, and readers are exposed to how life is, or was, for servants and merchant class people during the time period. That’s a big risk for a writer to take with her heroine! Was there any concern on your part that it would reveal too much of the disparity in class and comfort that was common at the time, or that it would damage the fantasy fairy tale of historical romance too much?
Julia London: No, I wasn’t worried about it. I wondered how some readers would take it, naturally, but ultimately, it’s a Cinderella tale, and if any romantic fantasy has endured the test of time, that is one. I got mail from a lot of readers who actually liked seeing a little more of how the other half lived. The majority of my mail has been very favorable, but there are always a couple of readers who don’t like change. I, for one, needed to do something a little different. Just as readers get tired of reading the same sort of historical romance, I get tired of writing the same sort. Don’t get me wrongâ€”I love a good historical romance, but sometimes, I like to change it up for my own sake.
Let’s talk reputation: Why do you think readers of historical romance seek out and enjoy stories wherein the heroine’s reputation is at risk, such as in The Dangers of Deceiving a Viscount? What’s the attraction there? Do you think there’s a similar parallel to modern women’s lives, even though our life and future aren’t as dependent solely on our social reputations?
Julia London: I think a couple of things about that. First, our lives aren’t as dependent on social reputations, but we still have them and we still care what they are. Therefore, I think it is easy for the reader to put herself in the shoes of an historical heroine in that regard. Secondly, without the higher stakesâ€”such as a woman’s total ruin, which we can all relate toâ€”the romantic pay-off isn’t as great. The greater the stakes, the greater the romantic tension, the greater the romance novel reading experience.
What’s your guilty pleasure romance clichÃ©? What plotline do you fall for as a reader?
Julia London: Good question! I am probably in the minority here, but I like heroines who are trying to accomplish something or fix something or run from something and find the hero as an obstacle, but ultimately the only one who can help her out because he’s big and strong and smart and capable. You know, me-Tarzan, You-Jane of thing. HA! I can’t believe I just said that. Maybe it’s because in my own life I feel so responsible for so many things — it would be great to leave the responsibility for my happiness to someone else who is desperate to give it to me. Now, there is a fantasy! My husband is fabulous, but you know life is just too complicated for one person to do it anymore. And he’s not really into the whole Tarzan thing. He sort of likes the partnership route.
Other topics ahoy! A great deal has changed in a short time regarding how authors communicate with readers and the world at large. You participate in two group blogs, for example, in addition to updating your own site. How has blogging changed the way you relate to readers? Are you surprised there is an audience of readers out there who want to learn more more more about the behind-the-scenes thoughts and musings of their favorite authors?
Julia London: I think it is important as a writer to relate to readers. The readers who seek me out are ones who are into my books. I want to keep them up to date what is happening with my career. I want them in the stores the first week a book is on sale. I want to make them happy! That being said, as a person, I just like getting to know people. Blogging and bulletin boardsâ€”I just started oneâ€”make it possible for readers and authors to know each other beyond the confines of a particular book. The romance novel industry is a huge, supportive community. It’s really amazing when you think of it. But it’s filled with women who have similar likes and dislikes. Take Thanksgivingâ€”through one blog, we heard about what people were planning. Across the country and Canada, readers were talking about their holiday meals, family woes, drinking and football. We all had the same issues, fears, and hopes. It almost feels like we’ve known each other a long time, when in reality, I’ve never met most of these women. But the basis of our friendship started with a love of books and it grows from there. It’s really cool, actually.
writing questionâ€”don’t cringe! Some authors, like Jenny Crusie, talk about making collages about their works. Other authors have soundtracks for specific books, or visual images of hot dudes to inspire them as they write their latest. What’s your inspirational tool, if you have one?
Julia London: Writing questions! Argh! I am so not a craft person and I don’t do anything as cool as any of that, I am sorry to say! I have a notebook where I scribble notes, and a computer. My inspiration comes from reading. I read a lot, and mostly outside of the romance genre. I also use music as inspirationâ€”sometimes a line from a song will inspire an entire book. And then, for those times when the ideas aren’t flowing, there is chocolate and Jim Bean. But that’s strictly to soothe my nerves until a great idea forms. Really.
Thank you to Julia London for answering my nebby-ass questions, and for taking the time to write long and thoughtful answers.