American author Sandra Byrd’s Lady of a Thousand Treasures is a finely detailed, slow burning Victorian romance with just the right amount of shivery gothic touches. Heroine Eleanor Sheffield is poised to take over her family’s art appraisal firm despite her gender, but her uncle’s failing memory and their precarious finances might destroy their business before she gets a chance. Painfully complicating matters is the dying bequest of Lord Lydney, who gave Eleanor complete control over his dazzling collection of art and antiques. She must decide whether to donate the pieces to a museum, or give them all to his son Harry, the man she once loved and who may or may not be trustworthy.
As Byrd follows her determined heroine through the muddle of her professional and personal lives, she paints a moving depiction of spiritual faith as well as an infuriating portrayal of the obstacles placed in front of competent, talented women.
What was your initial inspiration for Lady of a Thousand Treasures?
My husband and I are devoted fans of British television and film, and we are especially partial to the early seasons of “Jeeves and Wooster.” In one episode, the older men are after one another’s silver collections, stooping to all manner of shenanigans to acquire them. Wodehouse uses humor, as always (the lowly silver cow creamer!) to wryly remark on an upper-class habit, the collecting of things and envy of others’ possessions.
I do admire the many collections the British have amassed over the years, though. Some are in country houses, as in my book and the Wodehouse episode, but some are in tiny cabinets of the middle class, and others consist of large numbers of pieces that have been donated to museums. I have always loved the Victoria & Albert Museum just for its sheer size, and I loved learning a wee bit about its predecessor, the South Kensington, and how some collections came to partially populate museums.
I think that we are all collectors of sorts. I moved recently, and one of my friends noted how many baking pans I had collected—Bundt pans in 10-inch, 9-inch, 8-inch and 6-inch sizes, for example. Why? Baking is a way I provide affection to my family, and therefore it wasn’t so much about hoarding as what those pans meant to me. Jewelry, tea sets, artwork, even pennies and empty perfume bottles all carry an emotional value for those of us who treasure them.
This is a historical romance novel in addition to being a mystery with a lot of moving parts and suspicious side characters. What was the biggest challenge in terms of plot for you?
Keeping all those moving parts straight is the challenge, and I find I must plot in layers. I research extensively, and those learned bits get put on my outline. Dates and the mystery’s clues and outcome are layered on next, and then the various threads: romance, character arcs, spiritual aspects. When I have the house framed, as it were, then I feel free to let my creativity loose because—hopefully—I haven’t forgotten anything. I don’t think I could write historicals without setting a plot and a timeline ahead of time. It’s too much for me, personally, to keep in my head. Then once the math is done, so to speak, I relax and let my character command the pages.
I was impressed with the book’s realistic treatment of religious issues, such as going through a dry spell or a period of doubt in one’s faith. How do you approach writing something as internal and specific as an individual’s own spiritual experiences?
In my own faith life, I’ve had the benefit of a “long walk in the same direction,” to paraphrase the inimitable Eugene Peterson, and that walk has included breathtakingly beautiful experiences as well as plenty of skinned knees and dark nights of the soul (St. John of the Cross)—I draw insight from both. Friends and readers have shared their insights with me along the way, too, and their honesty bolsters me in my dry times, or even times of despair and God’s seeming silence. Fiction is not the place to teach or preach, but it’s an amazing format to explore the inner workings of an individual’s heart. God promises never to leave us or forsake us, and He reminds us that He’s a very present help in times of trouble. However, God is not a helicopter parent. He lets us work things out because He trusts us, and we are adults. I like exploring that in my novels.
How did you research Victorian appraising techniques? And what was your favorite thing that you learned?
When researching, I always use a mix of experts in the field, as well as books and articles. I visited several collections in the U.K.; my favorite is the Wallace Collection. I love it not only for its beautiful objects but also for its history. It has a few more than five thousand objects, and one of the conditions of the bequest was that the collection remains intact forever—no sales, no loans, nothing. That allowed me to see a whole collection and how the collector’s interests varied.
I spoke with curators and experts in the U.K. and right here at home. I have a friend who is a museum curator, and when I asked a few questions that stumped her, she gave me the contact of her go-to girl. That woman has been an evaluator and estate liquidator (and a collector in her own right) for nearly 30 years. She answered many of my questions—like how to see if a piece of glass is blown, because it has a putty mark on the underside, or how to tell if a statue has been broken and repaired or faked. She also shared her book research collection with me. We’ve grown to become friends; I call her my Friend of a Thousand Treasures!
My daughter’s mother-in-law knew the trick for testing pearls against your teeth; she also gifted me a lovely set of family pearls when our children married. I think my favorite learned fact was how gelatin from fish intestines could be used to falsely “age” contemporary treasures. Fish guts! Forgers are clever, if dishonest.
Eleanor is an excellent example of a heroine who is dynamic while still operating within the historical constraints of her era and class. How do you put yourself in the mindset of a character who has much fewer options in her life than we do as women today?
Victorian women had major constraints, and the heroines in my books cannot just solve their problems as you or I might—but I love them the more for that. They are forced to cleverly use the tools at hand. Truthfully, all of us, then and now, are constrained in some way from the full self-determination we would prefer, and perhaps that is one way we identify with them. And yet . . . the human spirit—a strong woman’s spirit—faces those challenges head-on, tries to think through what she wants and then plots a way toward it. When roadblocks occur, she finds a way over, around or through. That was true a thousand years ago, and it is still true now.
Also, we must all be risk-takers to gain what we want: love, respect, a meaningful life and personal fulfillment. Today’s readers certainly have that in common with yesterday’s women, my historical heroines.
Which of the treasures and artifacts in this book would you most like to own?
An adore ring. My husband and I looked for an authentic Victorian adore ring when we were last in London, but they were so, so tiny. I have the thicker fingers of a 21st-century woman who types for a living and washes up after dinner. These ladies had like, size four hands. I will keep looking, though. Or maybe my own hero will have one crafted for me one day.
There are a few real-life, fascinating historical figures that appear in this book—how did you decide which ones you wanted to include?
I work hard to ensure that my heroines are actually of the era, so I don’t allow one to take on a role for which I can’t find an actual Victorian woman to emulate in some capacity. I wanted Eleanor to be a curator and collector, to be an appraiser, to be good in her field. To ensure that she is not anachronistic, I first had to make sure there was such a woman in Victorian England. There was! Lady Charlotte Schreiber. Lady Charlotte was an amazing woman in her own right—she married the younger man she wanted the second time around, dyed her hair, pursued professional interests. As such, she made an excellent friend and mentor to my Ellie. You can see some of Lady Charlotte’s donations to the V&A and the British Museum online.
Dante Rossetti was well-known as both a man who enjoyed curiosities—a very Victorian pastime—and an artist in many mediums. He made a perfect addition to my book. I seek cameos, or even more substantive roles, by people who were not only of the time but organic to my book.
Your last series also took place in Victorian England, but your previous was set in the Tudor era. Why did you return to the Victorian period, and why do you think that era is such a popular setting?
The Tudors were my first English loves, and I adore them still. You can often find Tudor material in my pleasure reading. I only wanted to explore three women of that era: Anne Boleyn, Katherine Parr and Queen Elizabeth I. So when I was finished with Elizabeth’s book, I knew it was time to move forward. I mean, who can follow Queen Elizabeth I?
I skipped forward a few hundred years because I love the 19th century, too. A friend asked me why I hadn’t written Regencies, and I teasingly told her I wasn’t interested in picnics, to which she replied, unless they are set at midnight or in a cemetery. Exactly! That led me to the gothics of the Victorian Era.
I think the elements of a good Victorian—a mysterious hero of whom we are not quite sure till the end, a heroine without parental support so she must stand on her own, the commingling of dark and light—all make for a compelling read. It doesn’t hurt that it was such a long reign. Lots of decades’ worth of good material to discover.
What’s next for you?
Another Victorian, of course, the second book in the Victorian Ladies series. It will publish in spring 2020. I hope you’ll keep an eye out for it!
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Lady of a Thousand Treasures.