7 March 2012

Author Article: Julie Cohen

I reviewed Julie Cohen's new book The Summer of Living Dangerously which was a fantastic book set both in the modern day and in the Regency period. Julie kindly wrote an article about this topic, so here it is! My thanks go to Emily at Headline, and to Julie for writing the article!

The British Love Affair with Stately Homes

When Elizabeth Bennett says of her love for Mr Darcy,‘I believe I can date it to my first seeing his grounds at Pemberley’, she is only half-joking. Great romances have always been linked to great houses, with the settings often becoming as important as the characters. The most passionate novel in the English language isn’t called Heathcliff and Cathy...it’s called Wuthering Heights. Most often the grand houses are linked to the heroes, as symbols of their wealth and power, but occasionally they are owned by the heroine’s family—in which case they are most likely crumbling, as in I Capture the Castle, or the heroine has just been booted out of them, as in Sense and Sensibility.
Readers love finding the real-life inspirations for these houses. Mr Darcy’s Pemberley is said to have been inspired by Chatsworth. Daphne du Maurier based Rebecca’s Manderley on Milton Hall, transporting it from Cambridgeshire to Cornwall and combining it with her own future home, Menabilly—and then, of course, burning the whole thing down.

Modern romantic novelists have been inspired by stately homes too. Mariana by Susanna Kearsley is set at a fictionalised Avebury Manor, slipping between present day and 1665. Chick lit author Sarah Duncan borrowed bits of Stourhead for Nice Girls Do. And Mills & Boon have partnered with the National Trust to produce a series of historical romances set in their properties, including Ham House and Wimpole Hall.

I grew up on the east coast of the USA, in a Victorian house which was one of the oldest things in town. In history lessons we were taught of the Anasagunticook settlements on the Androscoggin River, but they were long gone from view. When I travelled to Great Britain for the first time at the age of sixteen, suddenly history was all around me. It lay thick on the buildings and the landscape.

I’ve always been a reader above all, so I was most interested in the rich layer of fictional history in Britain. Stonehenge was all about Tess of the D’Urbervilles; every rabbit I saw in an English field reminded me of Watership Down. In London, I propelled myself immediately to Baker Street and thence to a pub called The Sherlock Holmes, which had a reproduction of the great detective’s living quarters behind a pane of glass upstairs.

‘Look!’ I cried in ecstasy, ‘there’s the V.R. shot into the wall! And the slipper full of tobacco! And the correspondence impaled on the fireplace with a knife!’ The other tourists, some of whom probably quite liked Sherlock Holmes, edged away from the mad teenager.

As an adult, I moved to the UK because of love and stories. So when I was writing a romantic novel featuring a heroine who’s a costumed historical interpreter in a stately home, I jumped at the chance to layer my own fictional story on a real place. National Trust property Basildon Park had recently featured as Netherfield Hall in the film of Pride and Prejudice. It was the perfect setting for my romance-reading heroine.

Basildon Park has its own share of real-life romantic stories, though perhaps with less happy endings than mine.  Francis William Sykes, the grandson of the baronet who built the present house, married raven-haired beauty Henrietta Villebois. Lady Sykes conducted love affairs with Lord Lyndhurst and Benjamin Disraeli. The future Prime Minster wrote about his ‘happiest year’ with her in his romantic novel Henrietta Temple: A Love Story. As a National Trust volunteer told me, Lord Sykes didn’t mind his wife’s high-profile lovers or their romantic novels; it was only when Henrietta took up with an artist, Daniel Maclise, that her husband became properly scandalised.

I was invited to have tea with Basildon Park staff and volunteers on the lawn one sunny spring morning before the house opened to the public, and then—bliss of bliss—I was allowed behind the velvet ropes to wander freely through the house. In those precious minutes before ten o’clock, I stood in the Green Drawing Room with the light slanting in from tall windows, breathing in the scent of old silk and imagining that I was a Regency gentlewoman about to settle down for a full day’s work of embroidery and gossip.

Because my novel is a contemporary set in a house that’s open to the public, I also needed to know some of the nitty-gritty about how Basildon Park is run. I noticed how volunteers were alloted their rooms by drawing tags from a sack. I watched how the guides answered question after question from visitors with good-humour and a genuine fondness for the property. I catalogued the different types of visitors: strollers, examiners, questioners, researchers, distracted parents. The ones who read the guidebook, ticking off items, and the ones who carried on personal conversations, walking straight through as if they were in a train station.

The steward, Neil Shaw, circulated through the house, discreetly making sure everything was in its proper place. He told me there had been a series of thefts of small items, some of them quite valuable: ‘People just tuck them into their pockets.’ After I observed him straightening the bedclothes in Lady Iliffe’s room, he asked me if I would be interested in seeing his cleaning cupboard. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance and took in the period-accurate cleaning fluids, the tidily-labelled brushes. At the end of the day I followed him, closing shutters, as he put the house to bed.

In my book, Basildon Park has been transformed to Eversley Hall, with a different history and a slightly bigger floor-plan. I needed to add a fountain outside for my heroine to jump into. I omitted the Shell Room, which sort of gives me the creeps. But the Green Drawing Room remains, albeit in a more Regency style, and so do the dreams I had when standing in it.

You can buy The Summer of Living Dangerously as a paperback or an eBook now!

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