Following Olympia's Great Escape Route

My historical romances feature quite a few duke heroes, all rich, young, and good-looking. This was not the reality in early 19th century Great Britain and it isn’t the reality today. What is real though, is their belonging to the highest rank of the peerage, and their possessing, in the time of our stories, power, privilege, and wealth we can scarcely imagine. The duke is the mightiest of the noblemen—but in the idealized world of romance fiction, he meets his match in the strong heroine, who may have nothing but her brains to depend on.

So, I’m OK with the jillion fictional dukes.

The clothes, however, need to be correct (see my post on 1830s clothing). The streets need to be correct. And the houses. And other stuff. This is to make the story feel real. The characters are make-believe, but I place them in a world as close to historical reality as I can make it. Which isn’t to say I don’t take artistic liberties from time to time, or avoid many of the less appealing aspects of the time. It’s a historical romance, not a biography or history.

All the same, if the opportunity arises, I check my work, even after the book’s been published. Because of my brain. This happened with the Venice I described in Your Scandalous Ways. Though I traveled there well after the book was released, I visited the story’s various locations, to make sure I’d imagined correctly. I had. But that was Venice.

If Lord Byron came back from the dead and visited, he’d recognize the place. But London? He’d feel the way I did when I visited Tirana, Albania, after several decades: Where am I? More to the point, Where did all these buildings and cars and things come from? Help! What is this place?

As you’d expect, then, when I was in London—after A Duke in Shining Armor had gone into production and it was too late to change anything—I had to make sure I’d got things right. Thus, Olympia and Ripley’s great escape from her uncle’s house in Kensington? That run down Horton Street to the cab stand? Yes, I followed their route, to make sure it made sense and the timing worked.

The house she ran from, Newland House, was based on Campden House. It’s long gone (more about that on another post). But I knew approximately where it had stood—or sprawled, rather, over a large property. And, this being London (Kensington, to be precise), I found equivalents of the various landmarks I’d pictured. There was, as described, a tall wall around a large property. There was, as described, a locked gate in the wall. And I found these features in the general area where the garden of the house would have been.

And there was Horton Street. As the map shows, Kensington was much more rural in 1833. A great many more buildings line Horton Street now than in the time of my story. But the street, unlike some others, remains, as do other landmarks. And lo and behold, when we reached the Kensington High Street, we came upon a cab stand, about where there had been one at the time of my story. Maybe exactly where it had been, because that is one of the marvelous things about London: If you look, you find the past, maybe where you least expect it. And some things don’t change all that much.

Image of Campden House courtesy Kensington Central Library, with special thanks to Dave Walker and Isabel Hernandez for their patience and help.

Your palazzo or mine?

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In response to readers who encouraged me to discuss the settings and other background material of Your Scandalous Ways, today we're taking a house tour.

“Ah, Venice,” James said as he took in the view--such as it was--in front of and behind him. The buildings and gondolas were merely darker shapes in the grey haze. “A fine place, indeed, but for the damp.”

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I don’t know about the rest of you but I didn’t, really, know all that much about Venice before I embarked on Your Scandalous Ways. Casino Royale inspired my British agent hero. "Hmm,” I said to myself. “What would 007 be like in the early 19th century?” The film inspired my setting, too. Those climactic scenes in Venice awakened my curiousity.

I did not realize, for one thing, that Venice was built on a bunch of islands in a marshy lagoon.

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Originally, it was where people from the mainland fled when the barbarians attacked in the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. It was a safe haven because the lagoon was very dangerous and tricky to navigate. After a while, they quit going back to the mainland and started building. How they built is the miracle of Venice.

“All this, on top of water,” Sedgewick said, shaking his head as he looked about him. “What sort of people is it, I wonder, goes and builds a city on stilts on a swampy lot of islands?”

“Italians,” said James. “There’s a reason they once ruled the world, and a reason Venice once ruled the seas. You must at least give credit for a marvel of engineering.”

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Here's a view of the Grand Canal and some of the case (houses) or palazzi (palaces). You’ll find “ca” and “palazzo” used interchangeably. Until the fall of the Republic (i.e., when Venice surrendered to Napoleon in 1797), only the Ducal Palace (that building to the right in the painting above this one) could be a palazzo. All other houses, no matter how grand, were simply houses, case. Afterward, the restriction went away. And so the same house might be a “ca” in one book and a "palazzo" in another.

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These magnificent structures were indeed built on stilts packed close together. From my Eyewitness Travel Guide to Venice & the Veneto: “Pinewood piles were driven...25 feet...into the ground....They rested on the solid caranto (compressed clay) layer at the bottom of the lagoon.” On top of these were laid layers of brick and stone. The foundations were of Istrian marble, which resists damp. This book has some wonderful cutaway illustrations that are well worth a thousand words. But one need only look at the buildings and consider how much labor was involved--not to mention ingenuity--to appreciate the accomplishment.

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They followed Zeggio up a staircase to the piano nobile, and found themselves in a vast central hall. This portego, as the Venetians called it, ran from one end of the house to the other.

It was clearly designed for show. The line of magnificent chandeliers down the center of the ceiling and rows of immense candelabra standing on tables along the wall--all dripping the famously magnificent glass work of Murano--would, when fully lit, have made a dazzling display of the gilt, the plaster ornamenting the walls, the sculpture, the paintings.

Here for your delectation are lots of pictures of Venetian palazzi.

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Getting pictures of the exteriors was easy. Finding interiors was another matter--and for Your Scandalous Ways, it does matter, since many of the scenes are...um..intimate. Happily one of the Wench readers suggested Venetian Palazzi (ISBN 3-8228-7050-1--that's the English edition), which offers the proverbial visual feast. Copyright prevents my sharing those images with you, but there is some material online.

Here's one of the many internet sites I perused in the course of my research. This "Ceremonial Stair" in the Ca' Rezzonico is a fine example of the magnificent interiors. This site provides a floor plan of the Ca’ Rezzonico, too.

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Virtually all Venetian palazzi have the same basic layout. A great hall runs from the side of the house facing the canal to the side facing land, usually overlooking a courtyard. The hall on the ground floor is the andron. The one on the main public floor or piano nobile, is called the portego. Rooms extend from either side of these central halls. Some buildings have interior staircases and some have exterior ones. Sometimes the building was extended to surround the courtyard. Side rooms open into other side rooms. But if you keep in mind that big central hall running from the front to the back of the house, and doors leading into rooms on both sides, you’ve got the general picture.

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This shows the floor plan of the Ca’ Mocenigo, where Lord Byron lived, and the picture is of the poet at his leisure in his humble abode.

You can picture my hero James Cordier in a room like this, though he’s more likely to be gazing out of a window at Francesca’s palazzo across the canal than lounging on a sofa.

That brings us to the end of today's tour. Don't forget to tip the guide on the way out.

Originally posted at Word Wenches.

More Scandalous: A Girl's Best Friend

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As has been mentioned on a previous occasion, Francesca Bonnard, the heroine of my new book, Your Scandalous Ways, is a..um..bad girl. You know. The two-letter “h” word that used to have a few more letters fore and aft. She’s a very expensive bad girl.

People ask where we get our ideas. Part of her personality was sparked by an article I read in the New Yorker some time ago. It dealt, among other things, with a set of emeralds discovered at the bottom of the sea that were believed to belong to the Queen of Portugal, sometime in the 16th century. Or the 15th century. I don’t remember the date and haven’t yet unpacked my brand-new New Yorker CD-Rom, so I can’t check. But I vividly remember the picture of the gigantic emeralds. Wow. So I not only gave them to my heroine but made emeralds an important part of the plot. And then it turned out that all her jewelry was important, to both the plot and the character development.

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We authors do take time, at least now and then, to let our readers know about what the characters are wearing. Clothes tell us something about character as well as help us picture the historical setting. In this story, though, the jewelry really mattered.

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Here’s what James Cordier sees the first time he sees Francesca:

“A sapphire and diamond necklace adorned her long, velvety neck. Matching drops hung at her shell-like ears." I found the set of sapphires, along with most of Francesca’s jewelry in a wonderful volume, Jewellery: The International Era 1789-1910, Volume I, 1789-1861.

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As Marilyn Monroe informed us in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, “these rocks don’t lose their shape”--unlike we frail humans. Today a beautiful divorcee has men at her feet. Tomorrow, if she isn’t careful, she could be in the gutter. And the gutter is exactly where Francesca’s ex-husband would like her to be. But she’s a survivor, and jewels are her IRA-- “saved against the rainy day that often came to harlots as age took its toll.'' They’re also advertising. “Jewelry was a powerful form of financial security. Better yet, unlike bank notes, it was security one might display to the world."

The jewels’ quality is a signal to men: It symbolizes her exclusivity, i.e., if you have to ask how much, you can't afford her.

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We usually see Francesca’s jewelry through the eyes of the hero. Being, among other things, a talented jewel thief, James has a keenly noticing eye, and there are times when I wondered which made him hotter: her gems or her body. The combination does make him cranky, as when he tells her:

“You have a high opinion of yourself. But the king’s ransom in pearls you’re wearing is not proof that you are irresistible, only that some men are weaker than others.”

Some man had been weak, indeed. He shifted his gaze from her haughty countenance to the top and drop pearl earrings, then down to the two pearl necklaces circling her throat. From the upper, shorter one dangled pear-shaped drops of graduated size, the largest at the center. It pointed to the space between her breasts, whose rapid rise and fall told him she was not so indifferent as she pretended. The low-cut gown, of silk the color of sea foam, reminded one of the pearls’ watery origins. The pearl and diamond bracelets at her slim wrists glimmered against the butter-soft gloves.

The jewels alone constituted a cruelly arousing sight for a man who was a thief at heart. It was maddening that he couldn’t simply steal them and have done with her.”

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I stole the pearls from the Empress Josephine. The picture in the aforementioned book wouldn’t reproduce well even if it weren’t under copyright, but this picture shows similar pearls, although the lady is wearing only one strand.

I include a few more pictures of fine jewels, mostly belonging to the women in Napoleon’s circle.

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After all, it was in Paris that Francesca commenced her career as a Bad Girl. Here are a pair of diamond earrings that belonged to Marie Antoinette, and which you can picture on Francesca's shell-shaped ears.

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I’m also including a picture of Pauline Bonaparte, not because of the jewels, but because of the red dress. Francesca is aware that a red dress stands out nicely against a black gondola, and readers might want to keep this dress in mind (though it’s from a few years earlier than the time of my story) when they read the book.

For more of Francesca and James, you can stop here, at Romance B(u)y the Book, and read an excerpt.

More glimpses are coming, but I hope this preview of Francesca’s "rocks" gives you a sense of who she is and who James is and what went into creating these characters.

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Originally posted at Word Wenches