by Mary Jo
Today I'm interviewing Regency writer Rita Boucher. Rita and I are old friends, fellow Baltimorans as well as being veterans of the golden age of traditional Regencies. Her books were always charming and original, so I was delighted when she told me she was revising and reissuing her Regencies. (Something I'd advocated for over the years!)
So welcome to the Word Wenches, Rita! What was it like to revisit and revise your earlier stories?
RB: Thanks so much for asking me to be here and for urging me to get back to writing.
It was somewhat scary at first, I admit. I was afraid that the work would not stand up to the test of time, but once I pulled them off my shelf, I was both relieved and happy to find that my books were still fun to read. As I went through the revisions, there were a few tweaks that made them even better, things that I would have loved to do initially but couldn’t, since the publishing process back then was the equivalent of written in stone.
Another help was going on Amazon and reading old reviews. The kudos helped me to believe in myself and I tried to learn from my readers about what aspects of the plots and characters worked for them and what needed to be changed. Even the process of sitting down at the keyboard was like a bit of time travel. It brought back memories of the struggle to carve out hours for writing, of raising my kids, of building a business, while in my spare time; I spun stories on my Mac SE (a whopping 2 MB of RAM on that ancient piece of high tech).
RB: In my teens, Georgette Heyer’s romances were the gateway to a lifelong fascination with Regency England and I have shelves of well-loved old friends in the genre. When I reread those keepers, I find that many of the stories are still sigh-worthy. Their themes and relationships reach beyond their settings to move us as readers, but then those are the hallmarks of all good books. Because Regencies are removed from our time, they retain a kind of essential flavor for me, a fine wine that I can savor every time I taste it. In contrast, when I go back to read some of my modern favorites, I find that I am more likely to be jarred by the changes that have occurred in attitudes and settings since they were written.
Rewriting did present something of a challenge. During Covid, when libraries were closed, I loaned books to my neighbors. Sad to say, Georgette Heyer often came back unread, particularly by younger readers who complained they were too dense. As I went through my own novels, I found that I, too, tended to be wordy, especially in my earlier work. I tried to prune that denser verbiage. I’ve also, due to the request of readers, added some epilogues to the latest releases.
MJP: How many Regencies did you write, and how many of them have been released in revised editions? Are there more to come?
RB: I had written seven regencies. The Scandalous Schoolmistress, A Misbegotten Match, Miss Gabriel’s Gambit, The Devil’s Due, The Would-be Witch and its sequel, Lord of Illusions and The Poet and the Paragon. By the time this interview appears, they will all have been re-issued by Oliver-Heber publishing on Amazon, except for The Poet and the Paragon, which is due out in July of 2021.
MJP: The new edition of The Scandalous Schoolmistress has just released. Can you tell us something about the story and its origins?
RB: I had just been nominated for the Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart based on my first Regency manuscript proposal. Although I didn’t win the top prize, that synopsis and three chapters did get me an agent, who urged me to write a complete novel before she tried to sell my work. My oldest two girls were entering the angst and drama of their teenage years and I wished there were some way to help them avoid some of that pain.
That was the kernel of the idea that became the Morton House. Lack of guidance during her teenage years had led to scandal and social ruin for my heroine, Guin. Those experiences made her a perfect headmistress for girls who cannot easily conform to society’s expectations. When Lord Corvin’s incorrigible sister is sent to the school as a desperate last resort, the collision between Guin and the Viscount is inevitable. One of the biggest challenges as a writer was managing and resolving the mistaken identity aspect of the plot. I hope that readers agree that my solutions are wholly believable. The Scandalous Schoolmistress was my first sale and will always hold a special place in my heart.
MJP: Can you give us a taste of The Scandalous School Mistress?
RB: My pleasure!
Despite the mild weather of a cloudy London afternoon, the well-appointed parlor of the Morton House School for Young Ladies was as hot as purgatory. Indeed, Guinivere Courtney thought, the place smelled like the very gates of Hell itself despite the windows being wide open to dissipate the stench. The scent of simmering potpourri in the blazing hearth battled to disperse the sulfurous odor that seemed to pervade every corner. At least, she thought ruefully, the stinging smoke was gone.
Guin had deliberately chosen the parlor for her conference with Madame Celeste Vallée to determine if it had cleared sufficiently to be used for this afternoon’s interview, but it was obvious that the room would not do. Moreover, the brief chat that Celeste had requested was turning into a lengthy dramatic presentation.
“Mais, Guin!” The art instructress pleated her paint stained smock as she made her appeal. Certainly, no actress could have invested her supplications with a more tragic air.
“Surely, for Dorothea some allowance could be made.”
Although Guin raised her handkerchief to her eyes from time to time, Celeste did not seem at all effected by the heat or the stink. Seemingly, the fumes had affected Guin more profoundly than any of the other students or teachers.
“No, Celeste, I simply cannot permit it!” Guin said, shaking her head with an air of finality. She took up the damp scrap of linen again to mop at the runnels of moisture streaming down her cheeks. Fortunately, the swelling seemed to have stopped short of shutting her lids altogether and
“But she is a budding genius!”
Guin stifled a sigh as she tried to reason with the volatile Frenchwoman, a difficult task even under normal conditions. Now, Celeste was champing at the bit on her student’s behalf and ready to jump the traces of respectability. “We strain the proprieties to the limit as is. If somehow the parents were to get wind that Morton House has live male models for art classes . . .” The very thought made the schoolmistress shiver despite the temperature.
Guin gazed beyond the art-instructress to the parlor’s tastefully plush furnishings, the cunning marquetry table, the rich Axminster carpet and the ormolu clock on the mantle. Just a few short years ago, this room had been closed off and bare.
No. She and Aunt Hermione had worked too long and too hard to hazard it all for art’s
sake. Unfortunately, Guin was finding it deucedly difficult to convince the Frenchwoman that she had no intention of risking the reputation of Morton House even for the talented Dorothea Quigley.
Celeste pressed on. “Not for all the jeune filles, Guin, only for Doro. I beg you. How is she to study the male form, the musculature?”
“Hopefully, in due time, she will marry a male form of her own, then study him at her leisure, but not in my school, Celeste, not in my school!” Guin repeated emphatically. “Fruit, flowers, profiles, but no nudes. Comprenez-vous?”
“Yes, I understand,” the teacher frowned, bowing her head in acquiescence. As she reached the door a sparkle came to her eye. “Guin, if it is outsiders you are worried about, what about one of the staff? Goodness knows they are loyal.”
“The servants, Celeste, will keep their livery on. Do I make myself clear?” Guin commanded rising in implicit dismissal to close the conversation.
Though Celeste nodded grudging agreement as she went out the door, Guin was left with a distinctly uneasy feeling. Art was sacred to Celeste and the sixteen year old Dorothea was a most devoted acolyte. The two would bear watching.
The chimes melodically sounded the quarter hour. Three o’clock was rapidly approaching. She sniffed hopefully again, shook her head and rang for Perkins.
“We are expecting Lord Sinclair and his daughter at the half hour,” Guin said as she met the butler at the door, closing it behind her. “I’m afraid that the front parlor will not serve. Is there nothing more we can do about the smell?”
“I fear not, Mrs. Courtney,” Perkins replied apologetically. “I regret that we could not entirely get rid of the odor. We have opened all the windows and the concoction that Mrs. Bacon has simmering on the hearths has cleared the worst of it. Most of the rooms are presently acceptable, but the smell is still strongest where it originated.”
“And Miss Edwina?”
“The young lady is most contrite, Madame. It was she who helped Mrs. Bacon to compound the potpourri.”
Guin sighed. “Well, I suppose that we have no choice. We will have to move the interview to my office.” She started up the stairs then paused. “Oh, Perkins?”
“Bring up a bottle of the best brandy. Hopefully, a tot or two will help make the surroundings more palatable to his lordship. I shall ring when I wish tea served.”
“Very well, Mrs. Courtney.” The butler’s lip twitched at the edges and when he spoke, it was with the familiarity of an old servant. “If you will forgive me for saying so, the girl meant no harm. Miss Edwina was only trying an invention of hers to start fires up more easily. It worked wondrous well.”
“I’m sure it did, Perkins. Only now our finest room smells like the Lucifer’s den. It is devoutly to be hoped that no one else will experience any ill effects. Please convey my compliments to Mrs. Bacon on her tincture. The swelling in my eyes and hands seems to have ceased.”
“Glad news indeed, Madame.”
With a nod, Guin followed the butler, pausing for a moment to inspect her domain, trying to see the school’s entry as a stranger would. With the scent of sulfur diminishing, the aromas of the wax and lemon oil that kept the furnishings and woodwork gleaming came to the fore. Artwork created by students constantly rotated to occupy places of prominence on the walls to reflect the best of their achievements. The door to the music room was likely open, since she heard the distant strains of a student struggling valiantly to master a Mozart sonata. Gleaming windows let in light and air. The tantalizing hints of the evening’s dinner wafted from the kitchen below.
Despite the setbacks of the day, Guin felt her spirits soaring. Never in her wildest imaginings had she dreamt of this level of success. As if to complete the picture, a gaggle of girls came trooping down the stairs.
Edwina Melton’s smile faded when she caught sight of Guin. If she had entertained any doubts about Edwina’s remorse, the look of sheer misery on the girl’s countenance would have banished them. “I am so very sorry, Mrs. Courtney. Your poor face.”
“We will speak of it later, Eddy,” Guin said. “Seven o’clock, in my office, please. And tomorrow’s class in comportment will deal with how to choose the time, place and manner to render an apology when required. In the meantime, I remind you that a lady ought never to make negative remarks in public on the appearance of another.”
“Even if they are trying to help?” Dorothea Quigley asked.
“I might tell you that there is a smear of green paint on your nose, my dear, so that you may know to wipe it away and avoid further embarrassment,” Guin remarked, reaching up to touch the spot gently. “However, pointing out a defect can do no good if there is no means of rendering any assistance. It will only add embarrassment to that which cannot be immediately remedied.” Guin pointedly addressed the young inventor. “Is there anything beyond Mrs. Bacon’s remedy that can be applied to immediately rectify my appearance, Edwina?”
“I’m afraid not Mrs. Courtney.” Edwina hung her head in profound regret. “I do know that the blotchiness and swelling should pass quickly. At least they did when I tried my previous iteration of the compound.”
“That is a great comfort indeed.” Guin told the girl. “Now if you ladies will excuse me.” It was only the knowledge that she was being watched that kept the schoolmistress from breaking into an unseemly run.
MJP: Do you have plans to write any new Regencies? Or any other kinds of fiction?
RB: I do have two regency plots in the works and I’m ironing out the plotline of the first. After that, I had always planned a third Wodesby book and Etienne’s story is simmering on the back burner (I know how much you like redeemed rogues, Mary Jo!) Over the years I’ve considered a variety of genres, including romantic suspense and science fiction. I’d even started writing some of them, only to set my unwritten novels aside due to the real life needs and dramas posed by aging elders and growing children. Those ideas are calling to me now and I think that those stories may be richer for all those years of simmering on the back burner of my imagination.
RB: Thanks to you and your fellow bloggers, Mary Jo. Your suggestions have led me to new favorite authors, always a treat and a treasure.
MJP: Rita will give away a free Kindle ebook version of The Scandalous Schoolmistress to one person who makes a comment in the next two days. (US only. Sorry!)
Mary Jo and Rita Boucher