Christina Brooke and the Secrets of a Scoundrel!

Cara/Andrea here,

ChristinaBrookeToday I’m welcoming back my good friend Christina Brooke, and for all of you who have ever asked an author, “how do you come up with the ideas for your stories,” she has some fun stories to share about her latest book, LONDON’S LAST TRUE SCOUNDREL, which releases next week. Christina, a RITA Finalist last year in the Regency category, writes wickedly witty and passionate stories—and if you haven’t read her, you are in for a treat. So without further ado, I shall pass the pen to her!

Hello, everyone and thank you to the lovely Cara Elliott and all of the Wenches for having me here today.

Londons-Last-True-ScoundrelBrown-220x361 (1)When I’m among history buffs, I like to share a little inspiration for my novels in the way of some research tidbit that sparked an idea for a story.

However, LONDON’S LAST TRUE SCOUNDREL came about not because a piece of interesting research but because my editor came up with the title and emailed me, telling me I HAD to use it. This would be the beginning of a hero-centric series, a spin off from the Ministry of Marriage books, featuring the male cousins of the Westruther clan.

Those who are familiar with the Ministry of Marriage will know that Beckenham was due to have his story next. In fact, when my editor came up with this great title, I was already half way through the draft with about two months left until my deadline.

The problem was that Beckenham could not ever, by any stretch of the imagination, be termed a scoundrel. So I did something incredibly foolhardy that ended up working very well. I told my editor I would write a completely new book, featuring a fourth cousin I had intended to write further down the track. Jonathon, the Earl of Davenport.

Jonathon is everything the novel’s title implies, though some might say he has ample reason for his recklessness.

Regency-11Having chosen my hero, I needed a heroine, and I selected one from the rough, ramshackle deVere family, a young lady who was determined to rise above her vulgar origins and reach the pinnacle of success by attaining vouchers Almack’s. Of course, in the end we see that what Hilary truly wants is to belong, but Almack’s becomes a symbol for that longing.

The book was a lot of fun to write even though I had so little time to write it (in the end it was more like four months than two) and I drew on inspiration from a number of sources, including the British television series, COUNTRY HOUSE RESCUE.

Regency-4If you haven’t seen it before, you should buy, beg borrow or steal it from somewhere. The presenter of the program, Ruth Watson, has experience turning tumbledown country estates into thriving concerns. Each week, she visits a particular family and advises them how they can save their homes and turn them into self-sustaining and even profitable enterprises. There is a new host now and I haven’t seen his programs yet, but I admired Ruth’s ability to drive to the heart of the matter and tell these families some hard truths.

Solutions range from turning great houses into B&Bs to garden displays and tea houses. Every solution is tailored to the strengths and inclinations of the house and the people who live there.

Elmore CourtAt Riverhill, in Sevenoaks, Kent, an ancestor had been a botanist and brought back many rare plants from the Himalayas. The present owner’s wife was a school teacher and she had the wonderful idea of creating a “Himalayan Adventure” for school children in the woods, complete with Yeti sightings. They were such a delightful, hard-working family, it was such a pleasure to see their hard work and enthusiasm pay off.

Anselm GuiseThen there was Anselm Guise, whose family had come over with the Conqueror and been granted land at Elmore in Bedfordshire in 1262. As he stood in a rather somber dining hall surrounded by portraits of his ancestors, you could see a distinct resemblance!

Anselm is extremely gregarious and his background is in event and festival planning. He seemed to have a lot of friends who pursued an alternative lifestyle, memorably turning his drawing room into a repository for seedling pots at one stage as they assisted him to bring the estate into order. Ruth returned in one episode to find the kitchens he and his friends were supposed to be cleaning full to brimming with empty bottles from a hedonistic party the night before.

Regency-5However, Anselm’s energy and passion won through, along with his success in finding an extremely capable (and wealthy?) wife. They aim to return the estate to its former productive self-sufficiency with a kitchen garden and cookery school where students can take produce from the soil to the table.

As death taxes and the dwindling resources of families who own these magnificent houses have taken their toll, many houses have fallen into shocking disrepair. Many had simply closed rooms as they crumbled, living in a very small part of the house so as to keep maintenance and heating costs down.

Regency-2266It was the remark of one such family that brought me to write perhaps the most memorable scene in LONDON’S LAST TRUE SCOUNDREL. They said they were walking past a disused wing of the house one day, looked in the window, and saw that the ceiling was on the dining room table. They wondered how long it had been there.

My heroine, Hilary deVere, comes from a family who spends their money on horses and hunting rather than their house. So when Lord Davenport stays over night and his ceiling falls in on top of him as he lies wakeful, plotting how he will seduce our fair heroine, she runs to the rescue:

A sound like the rumble of thunder made Hilary start awake from her drowse. Disoriented, she glanced toward the window. A masculine shout made her realize that the thunder had come from inside the house.
   “Oh, no!”
   She leaped out of bed and flew into the corridor. The commotion had come from the guest bedchamber.
   She hurried toward it and wrenched open the door.
   There, stark naked with his back to her, in the midst of a pile of ceiling plaster and debris, stood Lord Davenport.
   Hilary’s jaw dropped.
   He was covered from head to toe in grayish-white plaster dust. He looked like a statue of a Greek god as he surveyed the wreckage, one hip negligently cocked. A David, a colossus still standing proud and tall through the sacking of Rome…

Regency-10I had a lot of fun with that scene!

While COUNTRY HOUSE RESCUE is entertainment, it’s also invaluable in picking up snippets of family history, stories of achievements and eccentricities and simply the way one lives in an enormous house with a grand estate. Of course, much has changed over the centuries since the Regency period in which I write, but human nature being what it is, there are a lot of quirks and customs that may be extrapolated to my books.

So, do you enjoy watching period dramas, documentaries, reality shows about your favorite historical eras? What are your favorites?

One lucky reader will be chosen at random from those who leave a comment between now and Thursday evening to win a copy of LONDON’S LAST TRUE SCOUNDREL!

Country House Pursuits

Ragley_HallHello, Nicola here. One of the questions I’m often asked when I am showing visitors around Ashdown House is what did visitors to country houses do all day? Life in London or Bath was exciting, with plays, concerts, opera, shopping and many more entertainments. In contrast the country lifestyle was sometimes mocked as slow and boring, especially on a rainy day. “Morning walks, prayers three times a day and bohea tea” was how the poet Alexander Pope described it.

It was a leisured lifestyle, of course, because the owners and visitors didn’t have to work for a living, unlike the servants who attended to their every need. So they were free to pursue whatever activity and interests they wished and, mostly, had the money to indulge those interests. Below are just a few of the ways in which they passed their time.

Ashdown, being a hunting lodge, was all about sport. Guests would go fox hunting and hare coursingIMG_9275 over the Downs, ride through the woodland or go pheasant shooting. There was a private racecourse and in the 19th century a nine hole golf course as well. Cricket was also played. If visitors wished to be slightly less active they could watch the progress of the hunt from the viewing platform on the roof of the house or visit the horses in their stables. Rainy days did not mean that exercise could not be taken. Many country houses had long galleries designed for a stroll in bad weather. At Ashdown there was the grand staircase where visitors could climb up and down, admiring the portraits as they passed. And by the mid-nineteenth century one of the favourite occupations of visitors to Ashdown was to watch the Earl taking photographs and posing for them as well. Who said country house life was boring?

Billiards 

Ivory billiards ballsFrom the Regency period onward Ashdown also had the appropriate accommodation for other country house pastimes. Billiards had been known as a game since the 17th century when it was played with curved cues called maces. However it did not become widely popular until the late 18th century and by the 19th century it was common for there to be a separate billiards room, as there was at Ashdown, with a smoking room alongside. This suggests that billiards was primarily a male entertainment but in fact women played as well and mixed games occurred frequently. In 1813 Lord Byron declared his love for Lady Frances Webster over a game of billiards at Aston Hall in Yorkshire! The billiards balls in the picture are made of marble.

Card Games

Card games were another popular way in which to while away and evening. Most country houses had at least one card table and when there was a ball there were usually at least three tables where guests could play if they were not dancing. In Emma, Jane Austen describes: “a very superior party in which her card tables should be set out with their separate candles and unbroken packs in the true style.” Games such as Commerce, Speculation and Loo were considered respectable. However, card games brought with them the dangers of gambling and sometimes accusations of cheating. Nothing was more likely to destroy the happy atmosphere of a country house party than guests falling out because they had lost money at cards or someone had the temerity to accuse a fellow guest of swindling them.

Concerts, Theatricals and Dances

Some aristocratic families such as the Cavendishes were rich enough to employ a private orchestra andThe Pic Nic orchestra to build a private theatre but even those who could not afford to do so could put on private performances in which they all took part. Jane Austen grew up in such a world where families wrote and performed their own theatricals. The Pic Nic Club formed in 1802 to stage their own plays, which were followed by sumptuous suppers. The picture is one of James Gillray's cartoons making fun of the Pic Nic Orchestra.

Ladies were expected to be proficient on at least one musical instrument and both ladies and gentlemen sang. Performing duets together or having a gentleman turn the pages of the music for you as you played the pianoforte could be a very romantic experience for a young lady!

Then there were the country house balls. By the 19th century there was a dedicated ballroom at Ashdown House but in many smaller properties the drawing room could substitute for a ballroom. All you had to do was move the furniture and roll back the carpets and you could hold an impromptu dance! The dancefloor was a great place to hold conversations without being overheard by your chaperon, although the steps of the dance might move a lady and gentleman apart at a crucial moment.

Drawing  

I have no talent for drawing so it’s fortunate these days that it is not a general requirement for theRegency Interior 1819 female sex to be able to paint and draw since I would be found sadly lacking. For ladies in the 18th and 19th century there were itinerant drawing masters who would instruct them in the arts of pencil sketches and of painting in water colour. Tradition dictated that these should be painted outdoors but when it rained ladies would sometimes sketch or draw interiors. These drawings have now become an invaluable historical record of what the interiors of country houses looked like and the style in which they were decorated.

Reading, Shell Work and Model Making

Long LibraryOther occupations for a rainy day might be reading, sewing or model-making. We might not now agree with Thomas Hobbes, who claimed that: “Reading is a pernicious habit, it destroys all originality of sentiment” but before the mid 17th century reading was intended more for reflection than relaxation and country houses had very few books. By the 18th century a separate room was set aside to house collections of books and although women were always noted to be more avid readers than men, the library was generally a male preserve up until the end of the 18th century. Interestingly by abut 1820 it had become a multi-purpose sort of a room where tea was taken, music was played and books were read aloud to the assembled company. This is the Library at Blenheim Palace and as you can see it features a piano as well as endless wonderful bookshelves!

The most complicated and intricate of ladies’ entertainments was probably the shell work that becameA La Ronde extremely fashionable in the 18th century. Many ladies decorated boxes with shells but some practised shell work on a grander scale. Sarah, Duchess of Richmond, and her daughters Caroline and Emily, decorated a grotto with seashells at Goodwood Park in Sussex. In 1798 cousins Jane and Mary Parminter decorated a house called A La Ronde in Sussex (pictured) with seashells, feathered panels, glass, broken pottery shards, mica and cork. Shells were also used in model making. One of the most famous models made during the Georgian period was Betty Ratcliffe’s model of the China pagoda at Kew, complete with tinkling bells.

If you had been a Regency lady or gentleman which of the country house pursuits do you think you might have enjoyed? Something sporting or something creative? Which would you have liked to try?