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12 December 2008

On Refilling my Bookshelves: the Romantics in their Time

The room I write in is the nicest in our house. A do-it-yourself add-on built by a former owner, my study has an improvisatory, even a romantic, air to it. Resembling a screened porch at the back of the house, it's wainscoted up to its ceiling, with lots of fanciful if not awfully efficient cabinets and unexpected moldings that probably mask seams in the carpentry.

Best of all (especially for a room in a tiny San Francisco Victorian on a narrow little urban plot of ground) the paneled windows along the back and a side wall let in lots of light and other amusements from our backyard and the ones adjoining. Cats in the shrubbery keep watch on their territories even as they doze, while my glamorous actress/model neighbor modulates from singing torch songs to informing one or another of her little boys that he has to "share that with your brother."

When our visitors get the (necessarily very brief!) front-to-back house tour, this is the last room they see. And they usually breathe something like "ah," or "oh yes" -- windows and woodwork calling attention away from the 1950s crumbling asphalt tile on the floor, the white paint yellowed and threatening to flake off the walls and ceiling.

At least until recently. Though who knows how long we would have gone on that way if an architect friend hadn't murmured, "That tile is made of asbestos, you know."

We hadn't known. We raised our son here, after all. But as of last week, the tile is sealed off by a nice new floor and the walls and ceiling are wonderfully, beautifully repainted.

"Just white," I told Teresa, the housepainter. But Teresa's an artist at what she does and artists don't go for easy answers (they're also more curious -- she's read some of my books and came to my book party).

"There are an infinite number of whites," Teresa told me. "You need to think about this."

And so I did. I thought about the room's northern exposure, the cool blue light that pours in when I'm in the throes of a project and begin writing at dawn or before.

And so the white walls and ceiling now have a pearly sunrise glow; the lower wainscoting is a cool, pale blue-gray; moldings, window frames, cabinets, and bookshelves as pure and bright a clouds-of-glory white as Teresa could manage.

And now that I've seen the room empty for the first time since 1984, I can see where the bookshelves (here, in the hallway that Teresa also painted, even in the nearby kitchen) really should have been. Not to speak of beginning getting intimations of how they should have been arranged.

And so... inevitably (you writers and perhaps some of you readers as well know where this is going, don't you?) I, and Michael too, are undertaking a major rearrangement of our books and shelving all through the house.

As you can see from the books scattered about in the photograph waiting to be categorized, it's a slow process. I need to think about this, I tell myself. It's not wasted time, I insist, it's a shape of the space of my life.

Of the life I share with my husband/research partner/most astute reader. Perhaps it's a holiday gift to ourselves and each other. It's not our custom to exchange anything else this time of year. But I'm finding it delicious to realize a little better every day what I need to read and what I don't, not to speak of what I want to work on next -- together or maybe even with Michael.

But in preparation, we're gathering the books about the history of eros and romance -- even (or especially) in literature and philosophy -- in shared space, in a big mahogany bookcase I once got at an auction.

While as for my study -- luxuriously, I may devote one whole bookcase to to-be-read and check-this-out-again, though part of this may also be given over to indispensable-never-to-be-without.

All the books about Jane Austen go together. Lord Byron. Mary Wollstonecraft.

Fiction and poetry (except for novels directly relevant to what I might be working on) still go on the floor-to-ceiling shelves of our living room, though. Because it's a social space, I guess, for sharing with guests what we most love. And showing off (just a little) what we're made of.

But there will be one fiction shelf in my study devoted to a growing passion of mine: for those novels (some out of print) inspired by that moment in literary history when writers and lovers came together, not only to create the modern horror genres (Frankenstein and also Byron and Polidori's gentleman-vampire) but to live and die too fast, and hence to remain (in Keats' words) "for ever young," forever frustrated, angry, selfish, brave and beautiful...

So far I've got:

Passion, by Jude Morgan. A big, delicious, deeply affecting novel by a British romance writer -- who, btw, turns out to be a guy! In alternating sequences covering a decade or two, Morgan tells the stories of the younger romantic poets, Keats, Shelley, and Byron, by telling the stories of the women in their lives, Fanny Brawne, Mary Godwin Shelley, and (two for Byron) Lady Caroline Lamb and Augusta Byron Leigh, with a brilliant prologue about the literal mother of one of them and the figurative mother of them all (and maybe us as well), Mary Wollstonecraft. All of the stories are beautifully wrought, but if I had to pick a favorite, it would be of Augusta, Lord Byron's half sister and (according to some, though not -- I'm told -- the Byron Society), his lover and the true love of his life. (And thanks again to hoyden Janet Mullany for insisting I schlep this one back home from the 2007 Dallas RWA National conference).

Love's Children, by Judith Chernaik. Constructed in a manner similar to Passion, but on a miniature rather than an epic scale. This one comprises first-person narratives by four of the women in Shelley's life: Mary Shelley, her stepsister Claire Claremont, half-sister Fanny Imlay, and Shelley's first wife Harriet, during the year when Mary was revising Frankenstein. Delicate, perceptive, tragic, a story of erotic and amatory liberation in a time when the risks to women were immense (both Harriet and Fanny committed suicide). I read this one after I'd finished writing The Slightest Provocation, and was fascinated that Chernaik had Mary, Claire, and Percy Shelley angrily reading newspaper accounts of the Home Office provocateuring that constituted the political heart of my novel. And I was deeply amused by Chernaik's portrayal of the dalliance between Shelley and Claire: in The Slightest Provocation, my heroine Mary Penley rebuffs Shelley's advances and advises him to "leave aside the fantasies of communal love and for God’s sake get rid of the stepsister." (Love's Children is out of print, but worth the search)

The Year of December, by Lucy Gores. Lots of readers find Claire, "the stepsister," a shallow, bratty annoyance, but her life and letters tell a more interesting story. Yes, she threw herself at Lord Byron at seventeen and had a daughter, Allegra, by him. But she showed backbone and judgment when she protested his sending the child to an Italian convent school. And one can't help but grieve for her upon learning that five-year-old Allegra died there in a fever epidemic that swept the convent -- and to root for her when she pulled herself together to travel across Europe and work as a governess in Russia. Living a long, productive life and never marrying, Claire remained more faithful to Mary Wollstonecraft's passionate feminism than Mary Shelley did. Gores' fanciful novel (written in 1974 and long out of print) follows Claire to Russia and thrusts her into a radical political intrigue worthy of her, the 1825 Decembrist Uprising against the Tsar. I haven't read this yet, but I love its imagined premise -- and its reminder that the romantic era was bracketed by the French and American Revolutions on one end and the rebellions that swept across Europe for decades on the other.

Imposture, by Benjamin Markovits. I was hot to read this when I posted to this blog about the roots of Regency vampire fiction last September, and I loved Imposture when I read it soon after. Though I will have to admit that the story of John Polidori, who lived and died in Byron's shadow, is so sad that I had to switch off with Christopher Moore's hilarious vampire novel Bloodsucking Fiends. Still, in some ways Polidori survives with honor, as the author of The Vampyre, which originated the gentleman-vampire school of fiction, even if its source was a (less good) story by Byron.

I'm not entirely sure what draws me to the romantics and their little wrinkle in literary/historical time, but I suspect it has something to do with my coming to adulthood in another outrageous, risky era -- the 60s -- and that I feel myself to be part of a collective story that I want to hear from more angles than my own...

...if still in my own newly pearly and glorious writing space.

And so -- perhaps returning to thoughts prompted by Mary's lovely post earlier this week -- do you have a mythic, personal time period, either your own or one in history?

And how about your own space for getting in touch with it?

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29 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I envy your writing space, Pam! Oh, for natural light! My husband and I chose this apartment in the summer of 2006 because it was the only one that didn't have a direct view of an airshaft (and the walk-in closet, washer/dryer and big-a** island in the kitchen) -- all luxuries in a modest-sized NYC apartment. But my back is to the window of my home office (the larger of our 2 bedrooms), which my husband graciously ceded to me as a workspace since I'm here all day. The window looks out onto a patio/common area of the condo, and the playground attached to the public grade school down the block. Along one side are the back ends of gracious brownstones. When there aren't a bunch of screaming kids and the trees are in full leaf, I pretend it's Paris.

Almost a full wall in my home office is lined with 84" high bookcases, with another tall bookcase to my left elbow as I type. And all the books are categorized. When we moved I assigned letters to each bookcase and numbers to each shelf, top to bottom, and created a list of which books (not by exact title but by type) that were on each shelf, and labeled the packing boxes accordingly, so I could reshelve everything the way I had it in our new apartment.

I've got all my Shakespeare together; a whole shelf that is Austen (novels, bios, related material); shelves of plays (in chron. order, beginning with the ancient Greeks and going all the way through the centuries to the ones my friends have had published); biographies (and those are separated, too) -- I've got shelves of 19th c. bios of actors/actresses of the age in addition to other nontheatrical bios; Judaica, novels (more or less arranged by century in which they were written); classic childrens' lit; art history; poetry -- all arranged by century; a shelf just for the Brownings (I once played Elizabeth Barrett Browning in "The Barretts of Wimpole Street, so I have a lot of books on and by EBB and RB); books on the history of NYC; and all my travel books are in a a wooden chest in the living room. Then there's one shelf where I keep the research material for my wip. If there are multiple wips, there are multiple piles. Did I say I have absolutely no shelf space? For "Royal Affairs" I had to buy so many books that weren't available through the NY Public Library that I had to box and store several of them.

You can tell I'm pretty anal about my myriad volumes, but it enabled me to get right to work once I shelved my books and it took only a couple of hours to do it.

5:37 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I pretend it's Paris...

That touched a responsive chord in me, Amanda. I don't know in quite what situation I do it, but I definitely do it. Is it a game New Yorkers play? And do Parisians ever "pretend it's New York"?

Wow, what a lot of books you have in your workspace! But it's windows versus shelf space, as you know -- and my work is complicated by the fact that Michael is Chief of Research and Executive Vice President of Theory and Inspiration. So the fact that it was he who discovered the 2nd century Greek romances that played a part in The Edge of Impropriety has a ripple effect, not only on our conversation, but on where we keep the books.

Oh, and speaking of Edge -- and of bookshelves, can I toot that book's horn here? Library Journal just named it one of the 5 best romances of 2008!

8:31 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Mazel tov, Pam!!! That's amazing news -- and well deserved!

As for pretending it's Paris, all my life I've been one of those people who wanted to be somewhere else. Is it any wonder that when I was a little girl I went through phases where I called myself Alice and Dorothy, and ultimately ended up as an actress ... and an author? I have to turn my writing space into another place as well. It's very "gracious" - almost like a lady's sitting room (but for all the computer stuff); with a multicolored Persian rug that takes up much of the parquet floor. The walls are a very saturated shade of rosy coral with a red toile wallpaper border below the crown molding; the windowshade is a deep rose toile as well, and I had my grandmother's chaise reupholstered in deep rose toile as well, since it needed a major overhaul anyway. The other furniture, including my writing desk is warm or dark wood. There are a number of heirlooms in this room from both sets of grandparents (who were a huge influence on my life); and on one wall is a framed replica (though it's an original oil) of Emma Hart as Nature (quite a nice replica of the Romney at the Frick; the painter fell in love with her image and did a lovely job); and my wall of actors: autographed photos of Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson, Ellen Terry, and Alan Bates.

The aesthetics of a room have a tremendous affect on my mood and I'm very picky about my surroundings as I write.

11:11 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Pam, your office looks beautiful, and Amanda, yours sounds lovely as well! And I'm very impressed with your book organization! These days I write at my dining room tablem, which is nice as there's lots of room to spread out and a pretty view of trees and stream out the window. When it comes to book, my definition of organized is having them on the shelves rather than piled up on all over the house. My parents (who built the house) put wonderful floor to ceiling bookshelves on either side of the living room fireplace. My mom had all the classics alphabetized by author. Now a lot of these shelves are filled two deep. Some of the books are still actually in alphabetical order, but I tend more to have the books I most need for a project by my computer, and the books I'm next most likely to need at the front of the nearest shelf. It's actually fairly efficient :-).

Pam, I've always been intrigued by the romantics, and I've thought about ways of using some of them as charactrs. But the milieu I most consider "mine" is that of late Regency/1820s Whig politicians.

1:58 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Thanks Pam and congrats on being named (one of the) best of the year.

My office is downstairs as far away from the front door and the phone as possible -- but still too close to email which I cannot give up.

Most of my research books are in our "library" known in most houses as the "family room" -- I pull out what I need and have a bookcase in my office to hold them as they build up during the writing of a book.

I love the Regency but need at least five more years of solid research before I can call it my own -- especially on the political side. If I had to pick a period that I most relate to it would be the late 18th and early 19th century in America - my field of study in college. Love the ideas and the optimism and the genius that bubbled over pre and post the Revolutionary War years.

2:26 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I forgot to add my comment on what period I like to consider "mine." I think it would have to be the last quarter of the 18th c. in England. I've learned so much, though, during my research for "Royal Affairs" and my wip on notorious royal marriages, that I feel on pretty secure footing in other eras as well. But I have a passion for "my" era -- in America, France, and England, though my most thorough knowledge of the era's history is on surest footing in England. Okay -- and I love the clothes. I can't wear high-waisted narrow skirted Regency fashions, so I'm less enamored of the era than of the preceding one. Give me a defined waist, a sleeve to the elbow, and a neckline that doesn't make me resemble a dairy cow in a nightgown!

2:33 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Everybody's writing space sounds lovely. But that's because everybody's made it her own, I think. Here's a question. Do you write facing a window or a wall? Or sitting at a desk or table looking into the middle of a room?

I'll tell you why I'm asking afterwards...

5:13 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I write with my back to a wall facing out into the room, because that's the best configuration for all my stuff based on the configuration of the room (where the door, bathroom door, closet door, and window are located). I need to see the expanse of room before me. I can't write facing a wall or I'm blocked and feel claustrophobic. But in a perfect world, where I'd be living in a place with a beautiful view, I would face my desk so that I could look out the window!

5:21 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I currently write looking into the middle of the room (actualy looking across my house, since the downstairs is open). But there entire wall to the side is windows, so I have greenery within easy view. I used to write in a different part of the house looking out a window. I moved when I was having a remodeling done and found I liked the new spot, mostly because it gets less direct sun.

5:35 PM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Love your new (sort of) digs, Pam--and it's uh, so tidy! I have new-ish writing digs, my daughter's former bedroom which was full of hideous detritus, and which I reclaimed this summer. I painted it a pale yellow because I liked the name of the paint (Creative Thoughts) as well as the actual color. The woodwork is bright white. It faces east and north and has the best light in the house. I write facing a wall but with a window next to the desk--where the desk could go was really determined by the position of the heat register and electrical outlets; and also, although I love the light, I didn't want it reflecting off the keyboard.

Currently the room is also furnished with a large box that held Ikea's smallest, cheapest sofa, and I really wish I knew someone whose small child would appreciate it.

I recommend Jude Morgan's other books too--he's a terrific writer, a protege of the late and wonderful Angela Carter.

6:00 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

I write looking out a window -- with the door at my left and most of the room at my back.

Old office - sat with my back to the door which I hated -- the influence of a past life experience perhaps?

6:58 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

What a gorgeous writing studio, Pam. And congrats on the honor for Edge, so well deserved.

My writing space is currently the livingroom of my mobile home in the middle of my five wooded acres. I chose the room because it lets in the most light AND it has a lovely fireplace in the corner. Not to mention it has the most wall space for my bookshelves. Our local independent bookstore closed recently and for sentimental reasons (and also because they were a great deal) I bought a number of the bookcases for my studio. I have not filled them as yet because I want to paint my walls and probably even the floors of my studio. I want to go with a pale ivory and actually apply lavender roses from brocaded material as a border along the top. The floor will be black and be covered with some lovely old rugs I have collected in my travels. I have an English bone china tea cup for every contest final and they are displayed in a lovely cabinet my nephew made for me.

My research books are housed in a series of shelves behind my desk beneath a window. The rest of the shelves will house the 1000s of historical romances I own, my Georgette Heyer collection, my Austen, my Bronte, my Radcliffes, my lovely hardbound Sharpe series. I have an entire room that houses my books on music and music history, my collection of vinyl (opera and serious music for the most part) my personal scores from my singing career and my opera posters.

I don't know that I have claimed the period entirely, but I fully intend to claim the Regency period as my own because I love the period. I hope to continue to expand my knowledge of the period with some careful attention to the performance of opera and the interest in the occult that would eventually flourish in the late 19th century.

7:02 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm fascinated by that growing interest in the occult too, Louisa, and some of my books on the to-be-read shelf are about that very subject. Writing about opera performance would also be terrific.

While about facing in or out...

Let me see...

Well some of you do face into the room but even those of you who do want there to be a window in view. Because my entirely unscientific contention is that writing by a window is a female thing.

True in your experience? And conversely, in your experience of the writing men you know? Or am I simply blithering here...?

I didn't know Jude Morgan was a protege of Angela Carter, Janet. Cool.

And yes, it's wonderful empty nest therapy to reappropriate all that lovely space left behind. When Jesse left home the first positive thing I did was move my ironing board into his room. Michael soon tossed out the ironing board, rented a piano, and began taking lessons after about 40 years of wanting to...

7:47 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Unofficial Poll:

Non-writers: My husband always prefers a desk by the window. My son could care less. My other son does not have a desk.

My sister has her computer set up so she looks out the window. My other sister has no window in her loft office but admits that she does most of her office work in the dinning room -- so she can look out the window.

One bro has a desk near window, two do not.

Now as for writers: all my writing friends I can think of have a desk positioned so that it looks out a window --- what do you suppose this signifies -- a need to escape or a need to be inspired by the visual?

Not sure it is gender specific -- how odd that I know no male writers well enough to know how their desks are situated.

6:19 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I like the windows so I can look out over my rescued dogs in the backyard compound of runs. Then I know why I get up and go to work every day (dog food is NOT getting any cheaper) and why I really want a career as a full-time writer so I will have more time to spend with them. And I like to look out over my front yard which is an English country garden in progress. I hope to eventually landscape a large portion of my five acres into a lovely English garden.

6:48 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Well, my husband and son write looking into the middle of the room. My husband doesn't have a good window, but my son has. Hence my entirely unscientific conclusion. I just emailed a male writer friend, too.

7:05 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

OK. From my writer friend Jeff Weinstein (who's written about food, art, and culture for many years) re himself and his longtime companion and husband of a week ago (yay, Massachusetts!), art critic/poet/curator John Perrault:

Me, middle of the room or a wall. Windows bad.
John, facing a wall.


Hardly a trend, but interesting, imo.

9:14 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I wonder if the difference is in the writer's tendency to become distracted - the wall or middle of the room writers while other writers need the input to feed the muse so to speak. For myself, I need to be able to stare off into space that could go off into infinity - thus the windows. How about the rest of you?

8:17 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

And offer my congratulations to Jeff and John, Pam!

8:17 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I'm very affected by atmosphere, Louisa. Staring off into space ... the horizon, especially if there's greenery or flowers or water on the other side of the window, definitely feeds my muse (but that's hard to come by in NYC), so facing the center of the room at least gives the illusion of wide open space in front of me so that the thoughts can flow in.

Ditto on the congrats to J&J.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

At my apartment in town I face a wall -- a little weird but the space is very small. I am as productive there as I am at home where I look out the window. Still think you have something there Pam --

1:57 PM  
Blogger Alison said...

Pam, there's a rather lovely novel about Claire Claremont called If With a Beating Heart by an Australian author Jean Bedford. It probably doesn't contain anything new for you but it's Clare as an old woman recalling the Shelley/Byron years of her life. It's a very touching book.

PS I sit facing a wall with a big window at my right shoulder.

7:04 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

If With a Beating Heart. Alison, thanks so much.

And yes, I forgot to ask about any other novels about that cast of characters. Anybody?

11:31 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Yesterday's NY Times Book Review section just published an excellent review of Benjamin Markovits's new novel, "A Quiet Adjustment".

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/14/books/review/Parini-t.html?ref=review

It's about the life of Byron told from Anabella Milbanke's POV. Yet another volume to add to my reading list, when I dig out from under my own research.

5:35 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Yes, I'm excited about that one. Also related is Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine, though it's Victorian. It's Steampunk -- computer tech without the electronics... if Annabella and Lord Byron's daughter maybe-mathematician daughter Ada had created the computer in the 19th century. One of the fun things was that Ireland's famine is averted...

I've also got a weird little novel, The Lambs of LOndon, by Peter Ackroyd, on my shelf. And -- unpacking another book -- still unread -- Annette Vallon, about Wordsworth's French lover during the revolution.

8:09 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks for the book recommendations Pam. At the moment, my home office is so filled with research books, that I'm forced to work with laptop in my bedroom!

1:10 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I can sympathize, Elizabeth. And I'm loving the opportunity to prune and reorganize.

4:49 PM  
Blogger Evangeline said...

I just moved into a new apartment, so I'm attempting to carve out a room(space) of my own in these new digs. I do laugh at myself because the first thing I set up was the bookshelf, packed full of research novels and the fiction I saved after deliberately weeding my collection before the move.

Of course, I claim the Edwardian era. I bounced around quite a bit, from the Regency, to 18th century France, to the Renaissance, before I finally found myself in the late 19th century/early 20th. I wiggled about for a few, until I realized it was a perfect fit. Something about the melding of the modern and the increasingly anachronistic appeals to me, particularly since that period is the root of the gender and social politics that birthed our modern-day society. I also find the most uncanny parallels with today and back then. Plus, I love being able to have my characters drive cars (something I have yet to do!), and my heroes and heroines can have intimate conversations using the words and ideas of Freud, Havelock Ellis, GBS, etc.

6:54 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

A fascinating era I wish I knew more of,
Evangeline -- I'm reading a lovely romance novel set in that period now,
Delicious
, by Sherry Thomas.

10:19 PM  

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