SO19 talks with novelist TASHA ALEXANDER Alexander's website says that she's a writer of "smart historical fiction," and the description is apt. Her Lady Emily novels, set in the late 19th century, bring together well-plotted mysteries, evocative settings, and a protagonist who is at once true to her era and energetically resistant to its conventions. In addition to the eight Lady Emily books, Alexander is the author of the novel Elizabeth: The Golden Age. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, where she studied English and Medieval History, she divides her time between Chicago and the UK. Her work appears regularly on the New York Times bestseller list and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. So19 chatted with Alexander about her interest in the 19th century, the era’s social changes, and latest book in the Lady Emily series, Behind the Shattered Glass (Minotaur, October 2013).
So19: Talk about your inspiration for the series. Why historical fiction, to begin with the most basic question?

TA: One of the many beauties of historical fiction is that it allows us to look at humanity with a clearer focus than if we’re talking about us, now. The stakes seem higher when you set a story in your own time. You feel like you’re telling it about yourself. When you get some distance, it’s much easier to look at what’s going on. Of course, what you realize is that the fundamental values of human beings haven’t really changed. The historical novel lets you bask in—or revolt against—something without feeling that it’s so personal, even though you know in the back of your mind it is personal.

So19: The novels are set in the very late 19th century. Why did you make that specific choice?

TA: I guess what really appealed to me about the 1890s, that late part of the Victorian era, was how many things were converging. You’ve got women in England finally starting to get some rights—they can actually, alarmingly, own property separately from their husbands. You’ve got all this political change. There is great disparity between the wealthy and the poor. In Europe especially, you find so many similarities to what’s going on now in the United States. The anarchists, for example, are really the terrorists of that era.

The whole Victorian era is littered with wonderful, eccentric people…real iconoclasts. You get these really interesting individuals who are pushing for social change. But until you get a broader base of the population supporting that change, pushing for that change, and eventually demanding that change, it can’t yet happen. So the period is full of contrast. You have Gertrude Bell traveling around Persia at the same time you have women that can barely control their own property.

We have an idea of what we think the Victorians were like—boy, do we think we know what the Victorians were like. Everybody has an opinion on that, and is pretty confident that they are correct. But if you actually explore documents from the time, you discover that they were a lot less stuffy and prudish than their Edwardian grandchildren would have you believe.

So19: Your main character, Lady Emily, allows you—and readers—to look at women’s lives in the era from an intimate perspective.

TA: In the series, I wanted a young woman who started off in really plush, cozy, pampered circumstances, an absolutely top-of-the-society girl. What is going to get her from that place to being a woman who is intellectual, and enlightened, and cares about social change? That was the whole idea of the series when I was starting and it still is. Each case she works on is helping Emily come closer to being that enlightened woman.

So19: In a previous interview, you talked about not making Emily unrealistically radical for her era.

TA: Occasionally I’ll get an email from a reader who’s reading one of the first books and wants Emily to reject all of the obsolete conventions of her time. But that’s not how people are. A hundred years from now people are going to look back at our society and say, what on Earth were these people thinking? Why did they not see what needed change, what wasn’t the way it should be? But you don’t reject overnight everything that you’ve grown up believing.

The suffrage movement was a great example of this. Some members thought that women really did need to go after the right to vote. But another element, even though they identified themselves as strong supporters of women’s rights, didn’t feel voting rights were necessary for women. It felt almost insulting to them, as though people were saying that their husbands weren’t capable of voting on their behalf.
In the first book, I showed Emily deciding to stay in the dining room after dinner, to drink port and smoke a cigar. Normally, the gentlemen would do that, while the ladies would quietly retreat to the drawing room to shield themselves from any interesting conversation that might be taking place. It sounds simple to say, “I’m actually going to stay in my own dining room and drink this port that I also actually own.” But back then, it would have been really a bold statement.

So19: There’s an interesting dynamic between Emily and her husband, Colin Hargreaves. He’s supportive, he believes in her, yet he clearly has moments of discomfort about what she does.

TA: Obviously, you need tension in books. I didn’t want the primary tension to be their relationship, but of course there are going to be issues. No matter how wonderful Colin is, he’s a Victorian man. He’s gone into this marriage with his eyes wide open. He knows what Emily’s like, knows that she’s going to be independent, knows that she’s going to keep doing this investigative work. We’ve all done that: gone into something thinking yes, I accept this. But at the end of the day, when the person is in danger or something bad happens, then you start thinking, wait, hang on. And he’s living in a society where he actually does have all the power in the relationship. He can put his foot down and say no. Though of course that doesn’t go over very well with Emily.

I think on the one hand, he wants to be more modern than that. But on the other hand, when the person you love more than anything is in danger, and you actually could stop that person, it’s very tempting to, even when you know it’s not the right thing to do.

So19: Emily travels to places like Vienna and Normandy, giving her a broad perspective on the social norms of her era. And Tears of Pearl, the fourth book in the series, is set in Constantinople—a real contrast with Victorian England.

TA: I wanted her to go somewhere more exotic, where she would see a very different kind of culture, a different society. I thought that this particular place would be interesting, because I assumed that Ottoman women would be so much more repressed than the English women at the time. But in fact, when I started doing the research, I found that it wasn’t quite that simple. Yes, Ottoman women were veiled. But they could own property, they could demand a divorce, they could still see their children if they were divorced, they would get money if they were divorced. In truth, they had more rights than an Englishwoman of the period. I read the letters of two different Englishwomen who lived there, one in the 18th and one in the 19th century. They talk about the freedoms these women had. It turned my preconceptions about the period completely on their head.

So19: In your latest book, Behind the Shattered Glass, you bring Emily home to the heart of England, and put her amid a wide range of people of different classes and roles.

TA: There’s a domestic reason that makes it important for Emily to be at home—the birth of her twins. But it’s not simply that. I think it’s important in her development as a character to travel, to see other parts of the world and other cultures, to meet people who are not of her class and not her servants. But you’ve got to then take all that experience and knowledge back into your own world. How do you bring these new views into that existing world?

So19: Emily is now a mother, at a time when parenting practices were very different from contemporary ideals on that subject. How did you research this aspect of her emerging story, and what most surprised or interested you?

TA: The typical mother of Emily’s time and class would have very little to do with the raising of her children. Nurses and nannies handled the daily routine, and children generally were brought downstairs to be viewed by their parents for a short period of time each day. Often boys were packed off to boarding school by the time they were eight—it’s easy to see why many kids felt more fondly toward their nannies than their mothers and fathers.

While doing research, I was surprised to find that many, many of her contemporaries were appalled by the way Lady Randolph Churchill dealt with her sons, especially Winston, when they were young. An American heiress, Jennie relied on nannies and boarding school (which she rarely visited) as much as her British compatriots. But she also allowed them to give opinions and speak freely. This was thought to be in extremely bad form, and Winston was considered spoiled as a result. Daisy, Countess of Warwick, commented that Jennie, “true to her American training…did not check Winston when he asked questions or argued with her.”

So19: You often include some kind of alternate perspective—journals, letters, the 15th-century manuscript in Death in the Floating City. In this new book, Behind the Shattered Glass, a servant’s viewpoint provides a glimpse of an otherwise hidden world.

TA: Right from the first book, I knew I wanted to add a servant’s point of view. But I wanted to use it only when Emily’s intellectual development was far enough along. She couldn’t look at servants as she would have while growing up, which would have been as furniture.

The whole master/servant relationship in England is fascinating. It goes back to the Middle Ages and can work beautifully, as a system of wonderfully symbiotic relationships. But there’s no mechanism in place to fix things when it’s not so good. It can be disastrous if, say, you’re living on the land of an aristocrat who’s going to raise your rent and throw you off your farm. In an ideal world, the lord of the manor feels responsible for all these tenants. It wasn’t simply about maintaining personal wealth. He knows he can’t just sell off a parcel of land, because then what happens to the people that live there?

By late Victorian times, you’re starting to get people who reject the idea of working in service like their parents did. On the other hand, you have people who still love that work. In Behind the Shattered Glass, Emily’s butler has that point of view. He’s immensely proud of his work, he holds the top household position for a very well respected family, and he lives very nicely in relative terms. He looks at people who say they’re going to work elsewhere and wonders how that really puts them in charge of their lives. Yes, they can choose where to live and where to work, but their options were limited and often unappealing. Work in Victorian factories was far from pleasant, and a man like Davis would cringe at the idea of living in a slum in London’s East End. However, people who chose a path other than service often felt that they had much more control over their circumstances. There’s no right or wrong—both sides of the argument had valid points. But in the end, very few members of the working class remained in service after World War I. An overwhelming number of people eventually rejected the idea that they were born to serve a higher class—and who could argue with that?

 So19: To touch on a more frivolous note, it must have been fun devising the fictional estate, Anglemore Park, which is the setting for Behind the Shattered Glass.

TA: While doing research, I visited as many country estates as I could and wound up making Anglemore completely different from what I’d expected I would when I started. I had thought it would be like Castle Howard, a house that has played large in my imagination ever since I saw Brideshead Revisited when I was about ten years old. But when I started exploring a variety of great houses, the ones I liked the best were the ones that had grown over time, kind of sprawled from their medieval origins.

My fictional Anglemore Park (named by a dear English friend of mine) is in Derbyshire, in the Peak District. So it’s beautifully hilly, with big rocks and a really dramatic physical setting. The house goes back to the middle ages, but in the 1890s, when the reader sees it, it looks mainly Elizabethan. Lots and lots of windows, lots of little nooks where you could read with good light, lots of gallery space for Emily’s paintings and antiquities—all of this inspired greatly by Burton Agnes Hall in Yorkshire. On the grounds of Anglemore, there is a lake as well as the ruins of an abbey, destroyed during the Reformation, and several follies (those come straight from Castle Howard). The rooms below stairs at Anglemore are similar to those I saw at Harewood House in Yorkshire. There, the kitchen has a wonderful vaulted roof, the housekeeper has stunning views of the gardens, and the servants’ hall radiated warmth. These were not cramped, dark spaces—instead, they were well-lit, pretty, and comfortable.

So19: Is it too early to ask about the next installment?

TA: Next year’s book is done and dusted. It came from two bits of research I had done separately, years ago, neither of which fit into what I was working on at the time. The first arose when I was doing research for my second novel. I came across a fantastic archive of photographs taken at the Devonshire House Ball in July, 1897, held to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. The Duchess of Devonshire had instructed her guests to come in costumes, historical or allegorical, and hired a photographer to take pictures of them in all of their splendor. The result is a staggering record of opulent costumes worn by society’s best.

The second item was Huguette Clark’s 2011 obituary in the New York Times. Miss Clark, heiress to a $300 million fortune, died at 104 in a hospital in New York. Seems ordinary enough. But it wasn’t—she had lived in the hospital for twenty years, not wanting to go home. And home? She had three, none of which she had visited in decades before her death, despite keeping them all perfectly maintained and staffed.

The book—tentatively titled The Counterfeit Heiress, though that could change—opens at the Devonshire House Ball, where Emily and her dear friend Cécile are looking for an old friend of Cécile’s, Estella Lamar. Cécile has had limited contact since her friend abandoned Paris two decades ago for adventures in Egypt, India, Persia, and beyond. They find Estella in the costumed crowd, but Cécile recognizes her immediately to be an imposter. When said imposter is murdered soon after the ball, it quickly becomes apparent that nothing about Estella—or the murdered woman—is what it seemed. The subsequent investigation takes Emily to London and Paris, where she learns that the rational can sometimes be the enemy of the truth. <