November 06, 2018

Grace Burrowes

Rags to riches
Interview by

We talked to Grace Burrowes about bringing an unexpected marriage and the dark corners of Regency society to life in My One and Only Duke.

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When banker Quinn Wentworth marries preacher’s daughter Jane Winston, he has no illusions that it will lead to happily ever after. Quinn is in Newgate prison, condemned to die the following morning. Having enjoyed the company of the self-possessed Jane when she accompanied her father on aid missions to the prison, Quinn offers her the protection of his name and family after learning that she is pregnant. Jane agrees to his proposal, they share a tender kiss during their wedding, and she leaves, intending to honor his memory. But then, Quinn shows up on her doorstep, very much not dead. He’s been pardoned by the crown at the very last second, because he’s the heir to a dukedom.

What follows is a tender love story between two solitary, guarded souls, laced with delicious wit and shadowed by the ever-present danger of the conspiracy against Quinn’s life. We talked to Burrowes about bringing this unexpected marriage (and the dark corners of Regency society) to life.

I really adored Quinn as a character, and think he is a fantastic example of a hero who reads as a man of the 18th century while still appeasing those of us who, you know, believe in equal rights for women. How do you thread that needle in regards to your historical heroes?
Great question! One of the reasons I like writing Regency era stories is because, in many ways, that period mirrors our own. The Napoleonic wars dragged on for twenty years prior to 1815 and resulted in the deaths of millions of (mostly) men. English women as of 1816 had thus seen tremendous expansion in their societal roles. Just as American and British women moved into factory jobs during WWII, so too, did British women become more commercially and logistically independent in wartime—with the backlash of repression once the wars ended.

Recall as well, that Georgian women went to war with their menfolk. They “followed the drum,” and kept the army fed, clothed, organized and medically tended to, despite the genteel image the Victorians tried desperately to fob off on us regarding their parents and grandparents.

A Regency hero, at least one who glanced beyond an aristocratic ballroom, was thus well acquainted with women who’d gone to war, women who ran business empires, and women involved in everything from blacksmithing to professional pugilism to membership in the Royal Academy as artists.

The more difficult needle to thread is not that Regency heroes were navigating in a sexist culture—aren’t contemporary heroes also faced with that challenge?—but that reader expectations regarding Regency women’s roles are in many cases narrower than the historical reality.

Turning our attention to Jane, I was delighted to read a pregnant heroine who was still a sexual being while also experiencing morning sickness and all the other not-so-fun physical elements of pregnancy. Was this the plan from the very beginning and why did you make that choice?
Yes, this was the plan from the beginning. For her own sake, Jane would probably not have accepted a stranger’s proposal. She’d have slogged along, putting up with her situation, trying to make the best of it. The looming prospect of motherhood, though, and single motherhood at that, raised all the stakes. She no longer had the luxury of thinking only of herself, and thus Quinn’s offer merited serious consideration (thank heavens!).

Another unique element of this romance is that certain sections of it are written from the point of view of other characters, not just the hero and heroine. What led you to include other perspectives?
Readers are smart—I mean, really smart. When an element of a book becomes predictable, whether it’s alternating points of view, chapter length, tea-and-crumpets stage business or the contour of a plot, readers pick up on that very quickly. Anything the author can do to make the reading experience more engaging is fair game by my lights. I thus tend to include secondary points of view in my books, which can add tension, preview future story arcs and make red herrings more believable. To give a lesser character some point of view scenes can diffuse the focus on the protagonists, so it’s not a tool to overuse. As an occasional departure though, it can keep the story and the writing fresh.

When Jane’s father first appeared, I thought I knew exactly what type of overbearing, overly religious character he would be. But he’s terrible in a less obvious, much more passive-aggressive way. What was the inspiration for his character?
Isn’t he a stinker? A villain is often what the hero (or heroine) could become, if the hero makes bad, fearful choices, instead of good, courageous ones. With Jane’s father, I wanted to create a character that talks the talk, chapter and verse, but is in fact, a frightened, lonely, hollow little man. Quinn, by contrast, isn’t fancy, doesn’t have the pretty words, is never going to be accepted by polite society and hasn’t much use for churches (including the York Minster), but he’s a brave, honorable, fierce man. Honor—which I define as kindness and honesty—makes all the difference.

Which Wentworth sibling would you most like to get a drink with?
Stephen. I know he’ll have a book at some point in the series, but he’s being all coy and shy-guy with me so far. Maybe over a glass of brandy, he might give me a hint or two.

I have to ask because I saw this on your website and it made me giggle to myself at my desk—why have you tried, several times, to ride a cow?
I eventually DID ride a cow, in fact. One of my farming friends got tired of hearing his wife’s horsey-buddies brag about their noble steeds, so he trained his bullocks to go under saddle. The pace was sedate, and we certainly didn’t engage in any fancy dressage, but the general result was forward locomotion.

There are all these perfect little human details in My One and Only Duke, from Jane loving the smell of Quinn’s soap to Quinn loving the way she bundles herself up in his bed (even though she initially steals his side). When do those grace notes come in during your writing process?
Sometimes, I’ll read a scene in the revision phase and think, “This is talking heads in a white room, Grace. What does this scene smell like? What does it sound like? Is there dead silence in the middle of a fancy London neighborhood? Are all the textures bland, smooth and comfy? Where is the light coming from?” And I’ll add in details at that phase. Other aspects of the scene—like a pregnant woman having a very acute sense of smell—are there from the first draft.

Tell me about Elizabeth Fry, the Newgate reformer you discovered during your research.
Elizabeth Gurney Fry is an example of how one person can make a tremendous difference. We know a lot about her not only because her work gained the notice of Parliament and Queen Victoria, but also because she kept voluminous, meticulous diaries. She was a Quaker (and a minister in that tradition), who visited Newgate in 1813 and was appalled at the conditions she found.

She inspired the prisoners to organize their own set of rules for governing their wards, challenged members of Parliament to spend a night in prison (which she did herself), wrote extensively about prison conditions and was the first person to successfully promulgate the idea that incarceration should be rehabilitative rather than purely punitive. To that end, she organized a school for children jailed with their mothers, taught female prisoners sewing skills and equipped women bound for transportation with sewing supplies and fabric so they might occupy themselves on the long voyage and have something to sell when they arrived in New South Wales.

She was, in short, a force of nature who put her money, her time and her energy behind the cause of prison reform. She was the first woman to testify as an expert before the House of Commons, and she was eventually successful at ending the transportation of prisoners. She also founded London’s first homeless shelter when she saw the body of a boy who’d died of exposure in the London streets. She was brave, kind and tireless, all while raising eleven kids. She’s a fine example of a Regency-era lady who had a significant, positive and lasting impact on her whole society.

What’s next for you?
Thanks for asking! A book for Duncan Wentworth, When A Duchess Says I Do, is scheduled for release in April 2019. I had great fun with that one, and now I’m in the drafting stages of a story for Wrexham, Duke of Elsmore, and the Wentworth and Penrose bank auditor, Mrs. Eleanora Hatfield. Just how is that our Mrs. Hatfield knows every accounting scam ever devised to suborn fraud and theft? Enquiring dukes want to know . . .

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of My One and Only Duke.

Get the Book

My One and Only Duke

My One and Only Duke

By Grace Burrowes
Forever
ISBN 9781538728956

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