Amanda Elyot

Amanda Elyot had a wonderful blog on History Hoydens last week about meeting someone in real life who seems just like character from one of one’s books. I said I’d never felt as though I’d met one of my characters in real life, but “I have seen actors who seem uncannily like the characters I’ve written, both physically and in terms of the character I’m watching them play (this despite the fact that I had another character vividly in mind when I wrote the book).” Amanda asked me to expand on that, and the conversation turned into a fun exchange between Amanda, Kalen Hughes, and me that veered into the casting game, particularly relating to Charles. I thought it would be fun to repeat it here.

Tracy: I’ve always thought Matthew McFadyen would make a good Charles, but somehow I thought it particularly watching “Little Dorrit.” Not that Arthur Clenham is that similar to Charles, though they do have some things in common, notably mysterious family histories, difficult relationships with their parents, and attempting to sort out how to do good in world. But somehow watching it I could hear him saying some of Charles’s lines. It helps that the settings are so similar to settings in “Secrets”, as I said.

When I saw “Casino Royale”, I thought Eva Green would make a great Mélanie (and that’s not even an historical movie). Not just appearance (dark, fine bone structure, beautiful, French) but mannerisms, edginess beneath the elegance.

I absolutely knew Jeremy Irons was Raoul O’Roarke when I saw “The Man in the Iron Mask.” Now in that case, I was still plotting “Daughter of the Game/Secrets of a Lady”, so I wrote the book with him in mind, but his character clicked into place when I saw the movie.

Kalen: Tracy: I’ve always thought Matthew McFadyen would make a good Charles Nooooooooooooooooooo! Please don’t ruin Charles for me by saying this. *shudder* I still haven’t recovered from the horror of watching his greasy, somnambulant Darcy.

Amanda: I’m with Kalen on this one, Tracy. Particularly with regard to his painfully execrable Darcy.

And besides, I’ve always seen your Charles as a man and MacFayden just looks too young and green to me. Not a man with experience and mileage, but a pup.

Tracy: I think it’s so fascinating how people see characters differently! Kalen and Amanda, who would you see as Charles? I actually think one reason I thought he’d work as Charles in “Little Dorrit” was that he seems older and more world-weary, though what originally made me think he’d make a good Charles was MI-5. He isn’t my image when I write Charles, but I still think he could play the part.

Amanda: Since (a) he can do the accent; and (b)can play dark, tormented, with a lot of life experience behind him; and (c) because everything he does is always interesting to watch … Robert Downey Jr.

Kalen: I could see Robert Downey Jr. Though he has a comic/light edge that I don’t see in Charles. He wouldn’t have come to mind for me right off the bat . . .

I could see Richard Armitage (North and South). And I could totally see Anthony Howell (Foyle’s War and Wives and Daughers), or Julian Ovenden (Foyle’s War). I could also see Christian Bale. The intensity and intelligence work for the role.

I love the “casting game” because it gives such fascinating glimpses into how different readers see characters (and often reveals sides of the characters I hadn’t considered) and really goes to my blog a while ago about how each reader reads a slightly different book.

I wouldn’t have thought of Robert Downey Jr. either, but he’s a very interesting suggestion—must think about that more. He could play pretty much any part, I think, but he has the light edge Kalen talks about… I’m not sure he’s as “inward” as Charles.

Kalen, Christian Bale is actually someone else I’ve thought myself would make a great Charles. I could maybe see Richard Armitage too (I think Christian Bale has more of the “inward” quality, somehow). Who do Anthony Howell and Julian Ovendon play on Foyle’s War?

Kalen: Anthony Howell is Sgt. Milner (I love his eyebrows; they’re very straight and there’s something slightly sad about the expression they give his face).

Julian Ovendon plays Folye’s son, Andrew.

Tracy: Thanks, Kalen! I don’t have a clear image in my head of either one–must watch some more Foyle’s War episodes. I’m trying to work out why Christian Bale seems more “right” to me than Richard Armitage and Robert Downey Jr….

Amanda: Armitage is the man of the moment for me; I was utterly taken with his performance in “North and South.” I agree with either guy from “Foyle’s War,” too, though they seem a little light. I’m thinking temperament as well as looks when I cast, even for fun — though I’ve done it plenty of times for real.

I’ve seen Downey give some very tortured and dark performances (check out his resume on and you’ll see some of the dramas he’s done.) He also brings his own demons (as well as his vulnerability) to the screen with him, which I think it particularly compelling vis-a-vis Tracy’s character of Charles. Watch for him to play Sherlock Holmes (though the producers have buffed him up). Gee, why do I think the guy might know something about the seven percent solution?

There’s a good actor under all the trash Bale has performed lately, but it’s too well hidden these days for my taste, eclipsed by bad material. So he’s no longer a standout in my mind. Colin Farrell does dark and tortured well, but he has a bit of an attitude for my taste so too often I feel like I’m watching the actor and not the character.

Tracy: Amanda, I think of temperament as well as looks when I cast for fun as well–in fact, as a writer, it’s the temperament when I mentally cast that often gives me a sense of the character. Sometimes I’ve found a character won’t click on the page until I have the right (or right for me) actor in mind. (Does anyone else find that?).

Downey has an amazing range as an actor, and a character actor’s ability to disappear into the part. When I said he had a light edge, I wasn’t thinking of his comic roles (which he does brilliantly) so much as that even playing dark, tortured characters there’s a lightness underneath in a sense. On the other hand, that would actually be an interesting quality in someone playing Charles. Now I’m intrigued imagining some of the scenes with him in them…

I’m very exited to see him as Sherlock Holmes. (Which actually may make him seem more Charles-ish to me).

What do you think of the latest casting suggestions for Charles? Have you ever seen a movie or television show and felt you were looking at a character you’d written or read about?

Who else is watching Little Dorrit? Who’s seen the 1988 Christine Edzard movies of the story? Little Dorrit and the Edzard films were my inspiration for the Marshalsea sequence with Hugo Trevennen in Secrets of a Lady. I watched the Edzard films a lot when I was writing those chapters. But the Marshalsea scenes in the current Andrew Davies version also look just like what I imagined when I was writing the book. And there’s a scene between Arthur Clenham and Amy Dorrit in a coffee house in the first episode that really looked like my image of the coffee house Charles, Mélanie, and Edgar take shelter in.

In keep with the theme, this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from David to Simon in which David writes about Charles and a bill Charles has introduced to reform debt laws.

I claim to believe in liberty, equality, and fraternity. And I live here.

Mélanie says these words to her mentor and former lover Raoul in Secrets of a Lady, surrounded by the surrounded by the Siena marble, intricate fretwork, and Aubusson carpet of her elegant Berkeley Square library. Pam Rosenthal had a wonderful post a couple of weeks ago on History Hoydens which got me thinking about Mélanie’s words. Pam wrote about the conundrum of being “deeply egalitarian in my attitudes toward social, political, and economic matters” and yet writing “in a genre that centers itself upon the pleasures and pursuits of the Regency ton.” Pam’s post and my own recent blog here on “Charles, Mélanie, and money” inspired my post this week on History Hoydens. One of the things I love about the blogosphere is the way a post and the attendant discussion can inspire another post and create a rich conversation among readers and writers. With that in mind, I thought I’d carry the conversation over to my own blog this week.

These days, it’s difficult not to think about economic matters. And for those of us who write predominantly about aristocrats, the contrast is perhaps sharper than ever. The 1930s romantic comedies I loved as a child were a big influence on me as a writer. So many of those stories (Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, My Man Godfrey among others) take place in a rarefied world of cocktail parties and dinner dances, weekends in the country and engraved cards of invitation). In many ways it’s a fairytale world of escapism with black tie and glamorous gowns and cocktails on the terrace. And yet the darker side of the Depression era is not out of sight. My Man Godfrey begins with the madcap society girl heroine on a scavenger hunt from which she brings back the “forgotten man” hero and makes him the family butler. The hero, Godfrey, turns out to have a more complicated past than meets the eye, one which brings the story back to the whole ever-present question of “forgotten men.”

In Holiday, the hero, a young, self-made man, wants to take a holiday and “come back and work when he knows what he’s working for” to the horror of his socialite fiancée and her Wall Street father (but the delight of his fiancée’s sister). In The Philadelphia Story (which remains one of my all time favorite movies and plays), a left-wing reporter assigned (to his disgust) to cover a society wedding, goes to write about “the privileged class enjoying its privileges” (writing this post, it occurred to me that my Bow Street Runner Jeremy Roth probably owes something to Mike Connor; both view the privileged class with a jaundiced eye and are reluctant to be drawn into this alien world). In the course of a midsummer night both Mike and the heiress bride-to-be Tracy Lord re-evaluate their attitudes toward social class as well as the nature of love and morality.

As Amanda Elyot commented in the History Hoydens discussion, “The wealthy and privileged characters depicted are behaving totally in character the entire time, but they grow; their character takes a journey, which should be the case in all good writing. And because along the way they learn a powerful lesson, about themselves and about the world they live in, then we care about them and want them to succeed, find love — and even stay rich!”

My mom, who grew up during the Depression, introduced me to these movies (in the days before vcrs and dvds, we often went to old movie revival houses). My mom was also a lifelong liberal with a strong sense of social justice. As I wrote in response to Pam’s post, “I absorbed strongly egalitarian values from my mom, who also introduced me to Georgette Heyer [and Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and other writers who’s books are largely set in a rarefied and aristocratic world] and took me out for tea and with whom I started writing Regency romances. Even our first book, The Widow’s Gambit, which was very ‘London Season,’ had scenes set in the darker side of the Regency world. Exploring that darker side is something I’ve done more and more through the years. But there’s no denying my central characters live a very elite privileged existence.” And in my own life, though I certainly don’t live in Charles and Mélanie’s elite world, I confess I’m a political, social, and economic liberal who also enjoys the opera and nice restaurants and has a weakness for designer labels (usually purchased at 70% off :-).

In my books, Mélanie in a sense confronts the same paradox. She married Charles (diplomat, politician, duke’s grandson) because she was working for a cause that opposed everything his world stands for. She realizes her marriage had catapulted her neatly over an artificial and quite unconscionable social divide. And yet she thinks in Secrets that the longer one played a role, the more natural it became. She had grown all too comfortable with the privileges she had married into. It’s a conundrum she continues to wrestle with. In fact, I think she’ll confront it more in future books, when her past and ideals aren’t so buried.

Mélanie’s conflict mirrors a number of my own conflicting feelings as an author who writes about a very privileged set of people. I love reading (and writing) about balls and gowns and country house parties and social intrigue. But I’m also fascinated by the contrast between the “Silver Fork” world and it’s darker, more Dickensian side. When I blogged about this topic earlier, Stephanie commented, “It’s not an easy line to tread. Because I enjoy reading about ‘the glitter and the gold’ in historical romance, yet few things raise my hackles more quickly than a hero or heroine born at the top of the food chain and carrying around a whopping sense of entitlement….Maybe the difference between an obnoxious versus a sympathetic member of the elite has to do with how they ‘wear’ power. Do they wear it expecting lesser beings to tug their forelocks and kowtow? Or do they wear it more lightly, understanding that, as people born to wealth and station, they might have something of a duty to those less fortunate than themselves? I suspect that Regency–and for that matter, Victorian–society had plenty of people occupying both ends of the spectrum.”

That range of attitudes gives writers a lot of leeway in how portray characters. Think of the difference between Anne Elliot’s self-absorbed father and elder sister in Persuasion versus Darcy who has a strong sense of the duty that comes with his position. Or the way Emma’s attitudes change over the course of her namesake book. When my mom first introduced me to Emma, she compared Emma Woodhouse to Tracy Lord. Austen may not write about climbing boys and the stews of St Giles, but she does a brilliant job of showing the plight of women without a fortune without anyone lecturing about it.

And writing about the powerful, doesn’t necessarily mean ignoring social realities. As Taryn commented in the earlier discussion, “power, well-used, is very attractive, and mis-used is intriguing as a force to be feared.”

As writer Mike Connor says to Tracy Lord, “With the rich and mighty, always a little patience.”

How do you feel about power and privilege in the novels you read? Do you prefer to read about characters living an elite and aristocratic life? Do you like to see the dark side of that life or escape in to the fairy tale? Does it make a difference whether the story is set in the past or the present day? Does the current economic situation make you yearn for escapism or make you want stories more grounded in economic reality? Or both? How do you think Mélanie will cope in the future with the disconnect between her ideals and the life she’s married into? Do you think it will be easier or harder for her when she can admit the truth about her feelings to Charles?

Mélanie confronts that disconnect in this week’s addition to the Fraser Correspondence, a letter she writers to Raoul (in code) after her political dinner party in the Berkeley Square house.

With Valentine’s Day a week away, I thought I would rework the blog I wrote this week for History Hoydens, bringing in some of the comments in the discussion that followed (not to mention fixing a misquote on my part!). I’ve wanted to do this blog for a while and Valentine’s Day seemed the perfect time to write it. Favorite romantic scenes–first declarations of love, resolutions of seemingly insurmountable conflicts, and other heart stopping moments. Here are a few of my favorites, scenes that bring an ache to my throat and put a smile on my face, many of them scenes I’ve reread so many times I know them by heart.

In no particular order:

1. “Oh, Damerel, must you be foxed just as this moment? How odious you are , my dear friend!”

The extended sequence at the end of Georgette Heyer’s Venetia in which Venetia and Damerel work out their differences has it all–conflict, humor, passion, and poignancy. Damerel is a world-weary rake and Venetia is a sheltered, unmarried woman, yet they’re so uniquely themselves that they pop off the page, and so obviously soul mates that you can’t but feel a catch in your throat as they battle through to their happy ending.

2. “I’ve just won a wager with myself.”

The scene in Freedom & Necessity by Steven Brust & Emma Bull in which Susan and James confess their feelings (and do rather more than confess them) may be my favorite literary love scene. It’s character-driven, emotionally fraught, erotically frank, and yet still filled with mystery. The final scene between the couple in the book is also lovely, and then there’s that fabulous last letter James writes to Susan, not to mention all the moments in between.

3. “Monseigneur, I would so much rather be the last woman than the first.”

These Old Shades is a comfort read for me, but it isn’t my favorite Georgette Heyer. It isn’t even in my top three. And yet I’ve reread the last scene between Avon and Léonie countless times. It’s beautifully written and structured, with a wonderful economy of gesture and emotion that speaks volumes. There’s very little inner monologue, and yet the emotional shifts are crystal clear.

4. “Now forget your responsibility to everyone else for once in your life and give me a straight answer. Do you want me to stay?”

The final scene in The Armies of Daylight, the third book in Barbara Hambly’s Darwath trilogy, may be the most satisfying lovers-getting-together-against-the-odds scene I’ve ever read, largely because the odds seem so very high and the happy ending so very much not guaranteed. There’s also something about this scene that to me is very much parallel to the Léonie/Avon scene, though the words are very different as are the characters. Yet both stories involve heroes who are considerably older than the heroines and who men capable of shaping the world round them (Ingold is a wizard, Avon a wealthy, powerful duke). Both men are convinced they’ll only bring unhappiness to the woman they love and are trying to do the noble thing and give her up (as is Damerel in scene 1. Doing the right thing can be very sexy). The heroines, Léonie and Gil, are very different women. Yet both are trying to convince the man they love that they know what they want and would much rather face the future with him, hand in hand. Like the scene from These Old Shades, this one has beautifully delineated emotional shifts and wonderful tension between desire and perceived duty and the competing objectives of the two characters.

5. “I do love nothing in the world so well as you: is not that strange?”

I got to do the church scene between Beatrice and Benedick from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in acting class in high school. My fellow sophomore Benedick and I barely scratched the surface of what the scene has to offer. But we had a lot of fun, and I still know most of the lines by heart. And every time I see the play, I find new things in this incredibly rich scene, which is funny, touching, romantic, and fraught with dark emotion. In the History Hoydens discussion, Pam Rosenthal said, It stops my heart now, as completely as it did when I first read it in my late teens. And Amanda Elyot, who is also an actress, said, That admission always takes my breath away. And it did when I played the role, every time we got to that moment. It’s a moment that is so well crafted; it manages to be totally earned and yet steals up on the lovers unawares.

6. “Placetne, magistra?”

I think I studied Latin college partly so I could understand the dialogue between Peter and Harriet in the final scene of Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night (thanks to which I now know that Peter phrases the question in a neutral way, rather than a way that expects a yes or no answer). That this scene manages not to be trite or anticlimactic or trite after three books of angst and adventure, countless marriage proposals, and several brushes with death is no small feat. You can really believe in the balance these two characters have fought their way to, yet there’s still enough tension to keep the reading anxiously turning the pages. Harriet’s done a great deal of thinking in the pages before, but here, as in some of the other scenes I’ve mentioned, there’s very little inner monologue. And yet every word and detail is weighted with subtext, down to the traffic lights blinking Yes; No; Wait. And as Janet Mullany said in the History Hoydens discussion, it’s a book that has a breathtaking amount of sexual tension in it.

7. Too late, too late, too late. It had happened.

My mom and I used to call this the “Gigi” moment–where the hero suddenly realizes, with the force of a thunderclap, that he’s madly in love with the heroine who’s been right there under his nose for years and years or pages and pages. The moment when Francis Crawford of Lymond comes to this realization, in The Ringed Castle, book five of the Lymond Chronicles is all the more powerful for the world “love” never being used.

8. “I prefer you as you are–tainted and tarnished.”

The scene where Mary casts caution and calculation aside and crawls into bed with the wounded Lord Vaughn in Lauren Willig’s The Seduction of the Crimson Rose is just lovely. A truly romantic confession of feeling on both sides, made all the stronger by the fact that you know just what it costs these two people to let their guard down and make themselves vulnerable. Both maintain their wonderfully acerbic sides, which makes their confession of their feelings (couched or allude to in character-appropriate terms) all the more powerful.

9. “A bath and some inoculations are called for, Holmes.”

I think the “dock scene” from Laurie King’s A Monstrous Regiment of Women may be my favorite proposal scene. Intensely romantic in large part because so much about it is is quite the opposite. Holmes and Russell are filthy and soaking wet and in the midst of an argument about his having gone after the villain without her. There’s a wonderful juxtaposition of acerbic dialogue and passionate breaking free of restraint. As with Gaudy Night and the Darwath Chronicles, and the Lymond Chronicles, it has extra power from being the culmination of
more than one book of longing. It sends chills up my spine every time I read it (play on words intended, to those familiar with the scene).

10. “Well,” he said, with a transitory gleam of himself, “you’re my corner and I’ve come to hide.”

Peter and Harriet are the only couple to appear twice on this list. Much as I love the last scene of Gaudy Night, I think I may be even more fond of the final scene between them in Busman’s Honeymoon. It grapples with a question I’m fond of addressing in my own writing, “what happens after happily ever after?” And it balances the scales by letting Peter need Harriet. As Lauren Willig said in the History Hoydens Discussion, I think it’s the first book I read that really took the time to deal with what happened after that initial, hard won resolution. She then made a nice comparison to Charles and Mélanie and watching the struggle of two people struggling to find a way to fit together on an ongoing basis, achieving small victories and dealing with the occasional reversal. Which prompted me to mention that The last scene in Busman’s Honeymoon was my inspiration for the last scene in Beneath a Silent Moon, which was my starting place for the book. I knew I wanted to get Charles and Mélanie to that scene, and I worked backwards :-).

Ten very different scenes. And yet, as I revisited them to write this post, I realized that the very differences in scenes and characters are something the scenes have in common. Each is unique to the characters involved, in the setting and circumstances in which the scene occurs (a sitting room in the French countryside, a rocky hollow in an alternate universe the London docks, an Oxford street) to the circumstances to the words and gestures the characters find to express their feelings. There’s also a wonderful tension to all of them, a sense of the fragility of emotions and the bonds between two people and the risk of letting down one’s guard. None of them seem quite certain in advance and yet once the characters find their way to each other, you absolutely believe in the possibility of their happiness.

Have you read any of the books above? Did any of these scenes resonate with you? What are some favorite literary heart stopping moments of yours? What is it that makes them particularly effective?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is Isobel Lydgate’s reply to Mélanie’s desperate plea last week for help with a seating arrangement for one of her first political dinner parties in Berkeley Square.

There are many different types and degrees of history in historical fiction. There are stories in which the setting is historical but the characters are wholly fictional and historical events don’t impinge on the book. There are novels like my fellow History Hoyden Amanda Elyot’s which center on a real historical person and real historical events. In between, there are an infinite variety of types of books. Novels in which the characters and plot are fictional, but real historical events impinge on the fringes of the story (such as Venetia Lanyon’s brother returning from the Napoleonic Wars in Heyer’s Venetia). Novels in which real historical figures make cameo appearances (such as the Countess Lieven in Heyer’s The Grand Sophy). Novels in which the central characters are fictional but the story is so intertwined with real historical figures and events that it is difficult to tell where fiction leaves off and history begins (Heyer’s An Infamous Army, Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books, Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles and House of Niccolò; reading Dunnett’s books, you wonder how history followed the path it did without Francis Crawford of Lymond and Nicholas de Fleury and reading Cornwell you wonder how the British could have won the Peninsular War without Richard Sharpe).

Since I tend to write about politicians, going back to when I wrote the Anthea Malcolm books with my mom, most of my books have at least walk-on appearances by real historical figures and some reference to historical events. Emily Cowper and Harriet Granville appear in several of my early books, Lord Castlereagh plays an important role in The Counterfeit Heart, Frivolous Pretence revolves round the divorce trial of Queen Caroline, A Touch of Scandal deals with the renewal of the East India Company’s charter. Dark Angel takes place largely in Spain and Portugal during the Peninsular War and not only Emily Cowper but her lover Lord Palmerston were secondary characters. Waterloo and its prologue and aftermath are crucial to Shores of Desire (and several real historical figures make appearances). The French Revolution and post-Waterloo industrial unrest drive the plot of Shadows of the Heart. Rightfully His deals with 1820s debates over emancipation of slaves in British colonies. Henry Brougham appears in several scenes as the hero’s friend and confidant.

The plot of Secrets of a Lady is inextricably intertwined with the events of the Napoleonic Wars, and several real people are mentioned (Castlereagh, Sir Charles Stuart, Wellington, the Prince Regent) but no real historical characters actually have “screen time.” Castlereagh does appear in Beneath a Silent Moon, however. He has a key scene with Charles, and his presence influence shadows the story.

The vogue in historical fiction these days is for stories that revolve round real people and events. Partly because of this, partly because of the direction my own interests and research have taken, real historical figures are playing more of a role in my books. Hortense de Beauharnais Bonaparte (Josephine’s daughter, Napoleon’s stepdaughter and sister-in-law) is a major character in The Mask of Night, as is her lover, the Comte de Flahaut, and Flahaut’s father, Talleyrand. Josephine appears in flashback and her presence hangs over the book. The younger generation of the Devonshire House set (Harriet Granville, Caroline Lamb) will be important characters in Charles & Mélanie Book #4, and I’d love to find a way to use Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (who was a friend of Elizabeth Fraser’s), in flashbacks. I’m already pondering what real people and events to weave into subsequent Charles and Mélanie books.

What role do you like to see real historical figures play in historical fiction? Main characters, supporting characters, walk-ons? Favorite examples? What real life historical figures would you like to see Charles and Mélanie interact with?

Updated to add–this week’s addition to the Fraser Correspondence is a birthday letter from Charles to Mélanie.