Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Era of Refinement and Snobbery: An interview with English historical fiction author Debra Brown

Today, I'm talking with Debra Brown about her Victorian novel of manners and romance, The Companion of Lady Holmeshire.


1) Tell us about your book.

The Companion of Lady Holmeshire is an early Victorian novel about a foundling girl who was given the name Emma. She was raised as a servant and then became the companion of a countess. She was polished up and taken along into snobbish, aristocratic society where she was often rejected and treated rudely because of her background.

She had eyes for the young Earl of Holmeshire, but he was engaged by arrangement. Mysterious men seem to be watching both her and the earl's fiance. Sweet romance and humor come together, upstairs and down, as the story moves from a stone castle to London mansions to the Midsummer's Night Dream Ball, and answers begin to fall into place.

2) What inspired your interest in this period of English history?

I love all of English history, but I really love the eras of gentlemen, ladies and manners. If you don't dig too deeply, it seems so peaceful and pleasant. I also like the idea of gentlemen walking ladies to picnics on a hill rather than driving them in a car. The beginning of the Victorian era was still somewhat agricultural outside of the cities.

3) There's quite a bit of period detail in this novel. How much research did you do?

I did quite a bit, but in an unorthodox way. Like everyone, I read some of the classics in school. Then I spent some years making jewelry, and during those years I had period movies on the TV as I worked. I frequently went to books or the computer to find answers to the questions that the movies brought to my mind. With Britain a continent and an ocean away, books, movies and the internet are what were available to me.

4) You've set your book in the early Victorian period, a time of transition away from the lengthy Georgian era. Why this time, instead of earlier, such as the always popular Regency, or the later Victorian era?

I actually like the Regency era better, at least on the Isles. It seems a little quieter without as much grating machinery and influx into the busy cities. However, I needed the help of a certain historical personage, a traveler in the Regency era, as part of the back story. I had to move the "present" to about 1840. I have to say that I really like the lady's fashions and hats of the 40s better than Regency wear. It was quite elegant, with larger hats, billowing sleeves and (artificially) tiny waistlines.

5) Even in this modern more democratic age, the aristocratic societies of the past continue to fascinate readers. Why do you think that is?

It is partly because we allow ourselves to be fooled by it. The class structure allowed for quite the lovely and leisurely lifestyle... for a relative few. The landowners in the magnificent homes had vast sums of money... at the expense of the tenants. If we can close our eyes to the plights of the poor and the servants and other dismal realities of the time, we can picture ourselves dressed to the hilt in finery, lovely hats and jewels, riding in carriages and living in leisure. There was an expectation of absolutely enchanting manners. A gentleman would never turn his back on a lady without excusing himself. People bowed and curtsied to each other. Hands were kissed. Perhaps this all hit me at age 20 when an elderly man from England kissed my hand when we were introduced. I was charmed beyond belief. I want a fair amount of that charm in my novels.

6) Though this is more in the style of the 19th-century novel of manners, you touch on some of the inequities of the period. Why did you include those elements rather than focus on a more straight-forward aristocratic novel of manners and romance?

Though I love the Austen-like fairy tale, I suppose I don't want to mislead anyone about the times. Life was not all beauty. Regency novels are often so pretty that people who don't dig deeper can get the wrong idea of the time- though I am not against such novels. People bowed and danced, but what about those men who carried in the drinks? Did they only exist for that ten or twenty seconds, and then they disappeared and ballroom-perfection returned? Or were there lives and problems downstairs? The vast majority of people were not lords or ladies, and much of life was truly sad. I tried to introduce some of that while leaving the conclusion of the matter pleasant.

7) You've put a lot of obvious effort into studying the period. Do you have any other novels in this time period planned?

My second novel, working titled For the Skylark, is set back in the Regency. I preferred to back out of the noisier, busier Victorian era. I would like it if we, today, could take a step backward. It would be nice if we could all have some quiet land and the know-how to live from it. I think we could manage hot showers and some decent hygiene with what we have learned by now... and I'd be happy with that. I think.


Thanks, Debra.

The Companion of Lady Holmeshire is available in both physical and electronic form at Amazon, Barnes and Noble.


Julia Hones said...

Interesting interview. Writing a novel like this one requires lots of research to understand that period in detail, so congratulations for completing it. Reading it may be like a journey to the past.

J.A. Beard said...

I read it last week in preparation for the interview. It definitely has a somewhat old-time feel to it.

Debra Brown said...

Thanks, Jeremy, for the interview and space on your wonderful historical blog. And thanks for your visit, Julia.

J.A. Beard said...

You're welcome.