Francesca's Tattoo


Fourth of July. U.S. Independence Day. I always wonder, What if King George III and his ministers had handled things differently? What if, over here, the pro-England side had prevailed over the dump-England side? What would we call ourselves? Maybe the U.S. and Canada would all be the same country. We wouldn’t be the U.S. Would we be Canada?

But what I wonder most is, Would Regency-era historical romances be as popular?

Since a great many of our readers are not in the U.S., I’m going to skip the Independence Day blog. Besides, I want to talk about tattoos.

In the course of my cybertour for Your Scandalous Ways, I’ve been asked more than once about Francesca’s tattoo. Readers emailed me about it, as well.


This was one of those topics I’d thought of addressing at some point in the story itself, but the right opportunity never appeared. This happens a lot. There are lots of little substories that don’t get told because it would disrupt the pacing to do so, and the topic doesn’t seem important enough for a detour...and I have only so much time to write a book as well as only so many pages.

So leaving out the story of Francesca’s tattoo was an artistic decision. It bothered me a little at first, but the more I thought about it, the less inclined I was to try to wedge it into the story. I figured this could be one of those “make up your own story” things. Like, “Make up your own story about what happens to Francesca and James after the end of the book.”


Let me start out by saying that anyone who wants to imagine Francesca has one of those henna tattoos that wear off after a few weeks should feel free to go on seeing it that way. It’s a great concept.

Here’s what was in my mind: Tattoos were unheard of among the upper classes in Francesca's day. Edward VII got one when he was Prince of Wales--but that was almost half a century later. Tattoos in Francesca’s time were not respectable, absolutely not for ladies. They were for sailors and criminals and savages. So one element of Francesca’s tattoo is shock value--and that’s clear in the scene at the opera. Even James, who’s seen it all, is shocked to see it. After all, she may be a courtesan, but she’s a lady by birth.


Where did she get it? By Francesca’s time there were professional tattoo artists in major ports, to accommodate the sailors. I imagined that by this time there must be at least one professional tattoo artist in big, cosmopolitan cities like London and Paris. I envisioned her getting her tattoo in Paris, as an act of defiance and a permanent symbol of her having turned her back on respectability.


I chose a serpent partly because of the Cleopatra-asp association. Both Byron and James Cordier associate Francesca's unusual looks with an Egyptian goddess or queen. I envisioned the kind of snakes one sees in Egyptian art and hieroglyphs. Too, given the tools available, a simpler tattoo, say, from a hieroglyph, seemed to make the most sense.

One reader suggested a Garden of Eden connection. That works well, too, given it’s her job to tempt men.


Another thing I considered was the pain and the risk. They used sewing needles and rubbed in the ink. I have no doubt it was a great deal more painful than today’s tattoos and of course the risk of infection was much a time when there were no antibiotics. Again, this says something about Francesca’s character, her inner toughness, her daring--and the ferocity of her anger with the world that rejected her and which she, symbolically, rejects when she gets her tattoo.


One reader asked why the tattoo doesn’t appear on the cover. Covers are painted long before the book is finished, and they're usually based on the story outline, rather than actual chapters. I did not mention the snake tattoo in the outline (one doesn't go into this much detail). The covers are meant to appeal to a broad audience, and Avon has done a great job, I think, in making my recent covers very beautiful and apt. I also suspect that, given the genre and the fact that not everyone likes tattoos, it would have been left out of the picture, even if I'd made prominent mention of it in the outline.


Originally posted at Word Wenches.