Guest Blog: Donna Lea Simpson, author of Lady Anne and the Howl in the Dark

Keeping it Real

Hi, I’m Donna Lea Simpson, and I eavesdrop… kind of. I listen to readers. I drop in on conversations on the internet, and join in on occasion. One recurring topic I hear discussed among readers, particularly readers of historical romance fiction, is chatter about reality in historical romance; how much ‘reality’ is appropriate, the pernicious ‘wallpaper’ historical, and loads of criticism of characters who act out of keeping with the times.

I have strong opinions, but rarely voice them. I’m going to step up today and talk about what I think about reality in historical fiction. I do believe in realism, but I think that some people are misguided about what real life was, when they look back in history at the role of women.

First, a little about why I have a stake in the conversation about reality in historical romance. Lady Anne and the Howl in the Dark, my April release from Sourcebooks Casablanca, is a historical romance mystery set in the late Georgian era, 1786, to be exact, in Yorkshire. Lady Anne Addison, the heroine, is that kind of character that some readers love and some loathe. She is strong-minded, independent, and unmarried. How true is that to the times, to have a woman who is fearless and strong-minded? After all, everyone knows women couldn’t do anything until after they were married in that era.

Well, yes and no. It is absolutely true that once a woman married she both gained and lost valuable freedoms. Though she legally became a part of her husband, and thus subject to his command, in reality many women gained freedom from marrying the right kind of man, one who either looked the other way while she did whatever she wanted, or the few who actively encouraged their intelligent wives to write, travel and even paint or perform.

But that depended upon marrying the right kind of fellow, and Lady Anne is understandably worried, given that her suitor, Lord Anthony Darkefell is commanding and convinced he is right most of the time. He would certainly not do for an independent minded woman.

But was her goal of staying unmarried and independent feasible, given the strictures placed on unmarried women in the Georgian era? Did any women of the time actually keep their independence, though unmarried? Consider the case of the authoress, Maria Edgeworth. I’ve read a couple of her books, and they’re very good. Not Jane Austen good, but good. Castle Rackrent and The Absentee are two worthy novels, very readable. Maria not only never married, she managed her father’s estate and had a long career as a an author.

Consider also, the even earlier independent and unmarried woman, Mary Astell. In Some Reflections on Marriage, she asks, “If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born Slaves?” A visionary, she is considered by many the first feminist writer, for she advocated education for women and broader career opportunities.

My heroine, Lady Anne Addison is, then, cut from the same cloth as these female free-thinkers, ladies who would not submit easily to the yoke of marriage. And yet many readers insist, when a woman character does something bold, that a woman would never do such a thing ‘back then’. Bosh. A little research is all it takes to discover many women who were willing to challenge the patriarchal society in which they were born. Sometimes they suffered for their headstrong ways, but more often than you would suspect they managed to do everything they wanted, and all without the support of a husband.

So, what is ‘keeping it real’ in historical fiction? Can a writer do anything with their characters? Can you have a woman openly living with a man, say? Well, no, not unless you show her suffering the consequences of her actions. That is where the reality comes in. For every unorthodox choice you have your female character make in historical fiction, you have to follow through and have her accept the consequences.

Lady Anne Addison, the heroine of my new series, beginning with Lady Anne and the Howl in the Dark, is one such intrepid woman on the cusp of deciding what to do with her life. She wants her life to have meaning, but isn’t sure how to accomplish that. Having escaped what would have been a disastrous marriage by the death of her fiancé, Anne now values her independence. I like her a lot, and sympathize with her fear of losing what independence she has.

Here’s a little about the novel:

Lady Anne and the Howl in the Dark

England, 1786
Lady Anne, a smart, stubborn, and skeptical spinster, travels north to Yorkshire at the request of a newly married friend to try to figure out what is going on.  A wolf—or werewolf—is roaming the countryside near Darkefell Castle, terrorizing the populace and harassing the sheep herds.  The hour she arrives in Yorkshire she stumbles across a body, and her outraged sensibility demands she discover who committed such a foul deed.

With a bewildering love/hate relationship developing between her and the master of Darkefell Castle, the Marquess of Darkefell—he happens to also be her friend’s new brother-in-law—Anne investigates, digging into the family history.  Confused by the marquess’s passionate pursuit of her and skeptical of the claims of a werewolf on the loose, Lady Anne manages to triumph, uncovering the reality of a very human murderer, a bitter enemy of the family, just in time to keep from becoming his next victim.

I hope you’ll all enjoy this historical romance/mystery, and the next two in the Lady Anne Series, Lady Anne and the Ghost’s Revenge (August 2009) and Lady Anne and the Gypsy Curse (November 2009). And I hope you like my spirited heroine, Lady Anne Addison, as much as I do!

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