Andrea here, musing on starting a new book project. I’m excited—and also a little nervous—because it’s a new genre. Now, writing never gets easier, but the genres of romance and mystery are a familiar landscape. And I while I always try try to find new path through the nuances with each book, the landmarks are familiar—I have a mental map and feel pretty confident of navigating my way from start to finish.
This new project takes me into historical fiction, and more specifically into a emerging sub-genre of fictional biographies inspired by remarkable women of the past who for too long have had their accomplishments hidden in the shadows of traditional narratives. I’ve occasionally mentioned in my previous blogs how exciting it is to me that so many hidden stories are emerging to broaden and enrich our understanding of the past. So many people and events that didn’t fit into a narrow view of what was deemed “important” or “true” are now getting the acknowledgment they deserve.
So, my new project is a fictional biography of Lady Hester Stanhope, a Regency “rebel” who is famous because of her later life, when she journeyed to the Middle East, earned the moniker “Queen of the Desert” for establishing her own little fiefdom and fortress among the fierce male warriors (and earning their respect!) wore men's clothing and “inventied” modern archeology with her careful excavation of ancient ruins. (left)
She became one of the most famous adventurers of the 19th century—and a good part of why is because she so scandalized society by breaking all the rules. But my book is going to focus on her earlier life, which to me is even more fascinating. Hester was born into a household of aristocratic power and privilege. The Stanhope family had marital ties with the Pitt family over several generations. Her grandfather was the legendary orator and British prime minister William Pitt, and her uncle was William Pitt the Younger, the youngest prime minister in Britain’s history. Her father was a prominent man of science who hobnobbed with Joseph Banks and along with his friend Benjamin Franklin was one of the leading experimenters with electricity.
Lady Hester served as hostess, private secretary and confidante for Pitt the Younger, as he never married. Clever, intelligent and possessing a razor-wit, she make a place for herself at the very center of male-only power, winning the respect of prominent politicians who came to her for counsel and a way to whisper in Pitt’s ear.
She loved it. However, her passions were hotter and brighter than Society allowed for ladies of the era. She dared to defy a number rules . . . and her romantic life was a source of disappointment and heartache. Lady Hester made reckless mistakes, but what I love about her was her resilience and and ability to reinvent herself after experiencing set-backs that would crush most people. (above: Pitt the Younger)
I’ve just begun my research—you’ll hear much more about Lady Hester in the coming months. But right now, one of the really cool things has been to discover so many satirical prints of the era involving her family. (This is particularly fun for me as many of you know that in my Wrexford & Sloane mysteries, Charlotte Sloane a is a London satirical artist who creates this exact type of cartoon.) It's fascinating for me to to see how the era viewed the people about whom I'll be writing. Though it's sharp satire, it's an interesting perspective.
I’ve haven’t yet found one on Lady Hester, though I did discover one on the scandalous elopement of her sister, who married the local apothecary. It served as fodder for James Gillray’s pen because Lady Hester’s father was an earl but after the French Revolution he became a radical republican and railed against aristocratic privilege—which Gillray found hypocritical,so the cartoon implied Stanhope should be pleased with a commoner as son-in-law. (above)
And I also found a satirical cartoon on Lady Hester’s first real love interest—her cousin, Thomas Pitt, Lord Camelford, who was a rakehell adventurer and sometimes spy. He was apparently quite a volatile person and prone to violent rages—I’ve just ordered an out-of-print bio on him called The Half-Mad Lord. Lady Hester found his adventures seductive . . . but when he was killed in a duel, it’s said she was a little relieved. (above)
Another interesting discovery was that her other great loves (both very prominent men) have famous portraits painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence, who is one of my favorite portrait artists. One of them, Lord Granville Leverson-Gower, called the handsomest man of his era, is in the British Art Center at Yale, which is close to where I live, and I have frequently stopped to admire it . . . and now I’m going to be featuring him in my book. Funny how life makes those little connections. (left)
Stay tuned for further progress on the story. As I said this new writing journey is just beginning! We'll see where it leads!
How about you? Have you read any of the recent historical novels “inspired” by real life women? Do you like the genre? What women in history would you like to see done in this fictional biography format?