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23 January 2008

Love & Dangerous Liaisons

I'm in the midst of galley proofs for the May re-release of Beneath a Silent Moon, the second book in my Charles & Mélanie Fraser series. I always stress out over galleys, double-checking research facts I've checked a zillion times, looking up words in the O.E.D., questioning my grammar. I wrote about twenty pages of new material for the re-release and made some minor edits, so I'm being particularly careful proofing all the changes. But in and around all the fact checking and obsessing, I'm also enjoying a chance to revisit the story and its themes. Like all my Charles & Mélanie books, it's a spy story with lots of suspense and intrigue. But at the thematic core of the book are a variety of romantic and sexual entanglements, and how they play out against the manners and mores of Regency society. A world through which the echoes of the more licentious eighteenth century still reverberate.

The idea for Beneath a Silent Moon began because after thinking through a lot of the details of Charles's family for Secrets of a Lady (originally published as Daughter of the Game), I wanted to write a book in which I could explore the Fraser family further, particularly Charles's relationship with his father, Kenneth Fraser, and his sister, Gisèle (who are mentioned in Secrets of a Lady but don't appear). As always with my books, the historical context in which my characters would have lived deeply influenced the creation of the story. I knew that the tumultuous marriage of Charles's parents would have begun in the late eighteenth century, the era of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Choderlos de Laclos’s epistolary novel scandalized late eighteenth-century society on both sides of the Channel, not because the world it described—in which seductions are strategized with the cool calculation of a chess game—seemed alien, but because it hit so very close to home. Lady Bessborough (sister of the Duchess of Devonshire and mother of Lady Caroline Lamb) compared the brilliant Whig hostess Lady Melbourne to the Marquise de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Lady Melbourne was the mother of five children, of whom probably only the eldest was actually fathered by her husband. (The eldest son, Peniston, died as a young man, making William Lamb the heir, which paved the way for his troubled marriage to Caroline Ponsonby. Lord Melbourne seems to have been a fairly good sport about been succeeded by a son who was not his biologically, though reportedly he was never as close to William as he had been to Peniston).

Lady Bessborough herself had a long affair with the handsome diplomat Lord Granville Leveson-Gower, who was thirteen years her junior. Her sister, the Duchess of Devonshire, lived in a ménage à trois for years with her husband and his mistress, Lady Elizabeth Foster. This is the world of Kenneth Fraser, Lord Glenister, and Lady Frances-the older generation in Beneath a Silent Moon. The world of Mozart operas such as Così fan tutte, where best friends try to seduce each other’s fiancées for a bet, Don Giovanni with his endless list of conquests, Count Almaviva, quick to turn his eye from the wife he was so eager to marry in favor of the girl who is betrothed to his loyal valet. The world of Fragonard paintings in which carnality pulses just beneath a spun-sugar surface. A world in which marriage is to cement alliances and produce heirs, seduction is a sport, and love is a game.

But amid this sexual license, a double standard persists. Men may be known as rakes and maintain their position in society (as Valmont does in Les Liaisons Dangereuses). Women have to preserve a veneer of respectability (as the Marquise de Merteuil does in the novel). Lady Melbourne was able to pass her illegitimate children off as her husband’s. Lady Bessborough and the Duchess of Devonshire were not so fortunate. The Duchess of Devonshire went to France to give birth to her illegitimate daughter (by the future Earl Grey), who was then raised by her lover’s parents as their own. Her marriage nearly failed and she spent considerable time away from her three legitimate children. Lady Bessborough bore Granville Leveson-Gower two children who were fostered out in secret and eventually raised by Granville and woman he married, Lady Bessborough’s own niece Harriet Cavendish.

Harriet doted on the children and, contrary to what one might have expected, the marriage was a success (Granville, Harriet wrote, “could make an arid desert smile”). The world of Harriet's generation (and of Charles, Mélanie, and the younger characters in Beneath a Silent Moon) had begun to change. The younger generation, as Lady Frances says in the book, “don’t necessarily play the game by the same rules.” This generation came of age in the era of Jane Austen’s novels, in which, for all their irony, love is real and can last. Of the romantic landscapes of Turner and Constable, of the vibrant emotion and daring innovation of Beethoven (whose one opera celebrates conjugal love). Romantic games were still a favorite pastime of the beau monde (Lady Melbourne’s daughter, Emily Cowper, also had children by a number of different men, including her long-time lover Lord Palmerston whom she eventually married after the death of her first husband; a visiting dignitary commented on how much Palmerston's son resembled him, not realizing the young man was theoretically Palmerston's stepson). But the games were played more subtly, with love holding greater weight in the equation. This world, the world of the Regency, teeters between the license of the eighteenth century and the restraint of the Victorian era. It's a world that I find endlessly intriguing as a novelist.

In constructing the romantic intrigues of my fictional Fraser, Talbot, and Mallinson families, I drew a great deal of inspiration from my research into the Lamb/Melbourne, Ponsonsby/Bessborough, and Cavendish/Devonshire families. For the series of epilogue letters I wrote for the re-release, mixed in with the letters between my characters, I wrote some fictional letters between Harriet Granville and Emily Cowper commenting on the events of the novel. Given the role their real life stories played in inspiring the book, it seemed only appropriate.

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18 Comments:

Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Excellent post Tracy. I wrote a post myself on my Scandalous Women blog about Lady Caroline Lamb and I have an individual post planned for the menage a trois between the Duke, the Duchess and Lady Elizabeth Foster. Have you read Janet Gleeson's new book about Lady Bessborough? I have it in my TBR along with finally finishing Amanda Foreman's book!

5:08 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I have Janet Gleeson's new book in my TBR too, Elizabeth. I was so excited when I found it. I've been fascinated by the Cavendish and Ponsonby families ever since I first started researching the Regency. I love Amanda Foreman book. I have a special, illustrated edition of it that has some fabulous plates, including a painting of Harriet, Granvile, and their children that I'd never seen before.

9:17 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Tracy, what a wonderful post! I'm also fascinated by that move from the license of the 18th century to the missishness-- and then prudishness-- of later years, especially for those like Charles and Melanie caught in that transitional moment. I particularly love the way you link the movement in mores to the artistic shifts of the day. The change in art and costume reveals so much about the change in attitudes.

10:04 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Lauren! (Btw, Lauren was knd enough to provide a fabulous quote which will be on the cover of the trade release--it's so great to have such wonderfully generous friends and colleagues). One of the things I love about the Regency is that is caught in the middle, between the license of the 18th century and the prudishness of the Victorian era as you say. I love looking at music and art and clothing to get a tangible sense of the attitudes of the day. I remember walking through the Frick when I was working on "Beneath a Silent Moon" and realizing just how much sensuality lay beneath the pretty surface of the Fragonard and Boucher paintings.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Wow, an illustrated version of Amanda Foreman's book? That sounds amazing. She's married to a guy that I used to work for at Morgan Stanley.

It's interesting how the pendulum swings back and forth between the licentiousness of the Georgian era and the early Regency to the late Regency/early Victorians and then the later Victorian years of the Prince of Wales and his Marlborough House set, where people once again took their cues from the heir to the throne.

10:49 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Elizabeth, the illustrated version is called "Georgiana's World"--it's become one of my favorite research books! The color plates are amazing. The pendulum swings are interesting. I've often thought of the parallels between the Regency Carlton House Set and the late Victorian Marlborough House Set, both as you say taking their cues from a Prince of Wales. I loved the television series "Edward the King" when I was growing up!

11:17 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

...realizing just how much sensuality lay beneath the pretty surface of the Fragonard and Boucher paintings.

And on the surface as well, in those endless, asymmetrical, infinitely self-generating bodily curves of rococo design.

I thought a lot about this when I was conceiving(!) The Bookseller's Daughter, with its themes of motherhood, breastfeeding etc (which Rousseau and company were obsessed with).

The book (highly recommended) that led me to these themes was The Twilight of the Goddesses: Women and Representation in the French Revolutionary Era, by Madelyn Gutwirth.

11:26 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I'll have to see about finding a copy. Edward the King was one of my favorite shoes, along with Lillie starring Francesca Annis as Lillie Langtry. In a sense the current Prince of Wales could be said to have his own set composed of various new age gurus as well as opera loving, hunting aristocrats opposed to the Queen's more traditional set.

11:32 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Pam, the book sounds great--thanks! The French Revolutionary era is so fascinating. One of the interesting things about being an historical novelist is that even if you write basically in one era, as I do with the Regency, your work touches on others. I'm constantly referencing the late 18th century in terms of my characters parents' and childhoods and earlier eras when it comes to family history.

Elizabeth, I also loved "Lillie" with Francesca Annis. And "Fall of Eagles," which dealt some of with Edward's sister Vicky after she she married the German crown prince. All those shows fit together to paint a fascinating portrait of late 19th century Britain and Europe as well.

11:49 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Tracy, your perspective on the transitional nature of the Regency is one I always bring up when I speak or write about the period. From my perspective one of the key elements is the move from an emphasis on the interests of the group to the interests of the individual.

To my mind, marrying for love is a perfect example of that.

The art and music are great examples as is shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy.

Can't wait for the next installment of the series and a chance to read those new 20 pages in the second.

5:53 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

Another blog to print and put in the research notebook! Thanks, Tracy! And of course lots of research books to put on the "have to buy" list. People wonder why I am so fascinated by this era in British history. How could I not be?? And the role of women in this era does not get nearly the credit it deserves!

6:40 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Sorry, I've been AWOL for much of the day scrambling to finish a chapter (I didn't). Tracy, this is a terrific post, and I'm even more fascinated than ever by the shenanigans of the Devonshire set and their satellites. I love the way you interwove letters from historical personages with the action of your fictional characters. And the slow morphing from licentiousness to prudery from the mid 18th to mid 19th centuries is always one of my favorite subjects. I love the sociology and the psychology of it.

8:03 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Mary, it's such a fascinating era, isn't it? I love eras in transition. the transition from emphasis on the group to the individual is a very interesting take on. And very glad you're looking forward to more books in the series--thanks!!!

Doglady, glad you enjoyed the post! The role of women in the era is really interesting, particularly because, as I mentioned, on the one hand they had a great deal of freedom but on the other the double standard still persisted.

Amanda, the sociology and psychology of the shifts in attitudes toward love and sex in the 18th/19th centuries are fascinating. And it was really fun interweaving letters from real and fictional characters and having them comment on the same events. I spent a fair amount of time looking at Harriet Granville's and Emily Cowper's actual letters to try to get the tone and make sure had them more or less in the right places geographically (Harriet and Granville and their children were traveling on the Continent at the time, so I have a letter from Harriet in Liège, dated when I think she would have actually been there).

11:44 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

One learns so much about history by researching a historical novel. My niece (11 years old) had a 6th grade English/history assignment to write something about the Jamestown Settlement, which was a study unit, and she wrote a single-spaced 13pp short story about the fictional 12-yr-old daughter of John Smith traveling with him to the new world and befriending Pocahontas, who was the same age as she. I swear to God it was at least as good as much of the historical YA fiction out there (significantly better than most, says the impartial and doting auntie), and Jessica had to do a lot more research beyond the scope of her study unit to write the short story (which in itself was her own interpretation of the assignment).

Never was the morphing of sexual mores so clear to me than when I was writing TOO GREAT A LADY, because Emma Hamilton (1765-1815) lived through much of the transition, although polite society more or less shunned her throughout her life. But the exuberant sexuality that was embraced by the likes of Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, was completely unacceptable behavior from any woman by the time she died.

4:53 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I really saw that transition in effect when I wrote about Lady Jane Digby and Caroline Norton for Scandalous Women. Caroline was completely innocent of any wrong doing with William Lamb when he was Prime Minister, but her reputation was ruined by just the rumor. And Lady Jane's behavior would have perfectly acceptable in the late 18th Century, but by 1827, her behavior was considered beyond the pale. Also she was incredibly indiscreet.

5:18 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Amanda, you're niece's story sounds wonderful! Writing talent obviously runs in the family. That's just the sort of thing I would have done at that age, take an assignment to write a paper and turn it into historical fiction, doing more research in the process :-). And that's a great point about Emma Hamilton's life actually showing the transition in mores and attitudes, something that comes through vividly in your novel.

Elizabeth, I always thought Caroline Norton's story particularly sad because she was completely innocent of anything at all. It's particularly ironic when one thinks of the way William Lamb's mother, Lady Melbourne, behaved in the late 18th century without her reputation being destroyed.

9:36 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I used a quote of Lady Melbourne's as an epigraph in TOO GREAT A LADY because it was, in a nutshell, exactly what happened to Emma Hamilton:

"Anyone who braves the world sooner or later feels the consequences of it."

7:16 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Love the quote, Amanda!

11:11 PM  

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