As the various Wildes have found and fallen in love in Eloisa James’ Wildes of Lindow Castle series, their ducal father, Hugo, and his duchess, Ophelia, have been following merrily along, offering advice, commentary and quips along the way. After five delightful romances starring their children and stepchildren, fans were delighted to discover that My Last Duchess would be traveling back in time to tell the story of how Hugo and Ophelia met.
We talked to James about the joys of fashion research, why she would like to go to a Frost Fair and how she made the very tricky trope of instalove work.
Did you always know that you would eventually write Hugo and Ophelia’s love story? And if not, when did the idea come to you?
The idea came to me as the Wilde books were being written; Hugo and Ophelia turned out to be such a lively couple that I wanted to tell their story, not just their children’s.
The other books in the Wildes of Lindow Castle series are set in the later decades of the 18th century. What did you enjoy about going back to the 1760s? Were there any differences you wanted to highlight between this period and the setting of the other Wilde books?
It’s always fun to settle into a new decade. One of my delights is fashion research. For example, Ophelia wears a sack-back hand-painted dress that actually exists. But I couldn’t just drop in a description of the dress; it had to have meaning. So, when Hugo realizes how expensive her dress is, he knows that she has no financial problems, and it takes the edge off his instinctive protective alpha reaction. A fun tidbit: Wilde Child comes out in the spring and takes place over a decade later. My Wilde heroine (Joan) wears a refurbished version of her stepmother’s dress! Many gowns at the time—especially exuberantly expensive ones like this one—were resewn into new fashion. And it’s a nod to Ophelia’s prudent nature, as shown by her rabbit muffs.
“I wanted her to be startled by something new and throw herself into a marriage without forethought.”
As a literature nerd, I had so much fun looking up the books that characters read and discuss in My Last Duchess. Which of those titles was the most interesting to you? Would you recommend any of them to a modern reader?
I love dropping literary nuggets into a story. I can’t say I would recommend picking up The Life and Adventures of Mr. Francis Clive, which Ophelia is reading—but I loved noting the fact that novels were written long before Dickens came along. The plot of Mr. Francis Clive gave me a way to establish Ophelia’s dead husband’s character, which I needed to do before Hugo introduced himself to her.
Hugo basically falls in love with Ophelia at first sight, and her own feelings for him aren’t far behind. Instalove can be such a tricky trope. How do you approach it as a writer? What do you think is needed to make it work?
You’re right about the challenges of instalove. On the one hand, it’s a beloved trope; on the other, it runs the risk of being really boring (two beautiful people instantly fall in love—ho-hum). When I was designing the Wilde family series, I decided that the male Wildes would know immediately that they had just met their future partner or, at least, a person whom they could love dearly. That decision changed the nature of conflict in the novels: I couldn’t include an “alpha who hates marriage,” for example. Here, Ophelia genuinely doesn’t want to be a duchess. And from my research, that was a prudent decision. But, obviously, Hugo won her over.
It was such a delight to see the young Ophelia. What did you enjoy most about writing her in prequel form?
I really enjoy filling in aspects of a character whom I had sketched in previous books—here, Ophelia’s red hair, her temper, her widowhood, her love for Viola and Hugo. It’s so satisfying, like filling in a crossword puzzle. I discovered why she made certain decisions in earlier books; I discovered why Hugo loves her so much. I found out what gives her the backbone to act as duchess-like as she will in Wilde Child!
I really enjoyed the complexity of Ophelia’s first marriage: it wasn’t great love or a passionless union, but something in between. Did you have any specific inspirations for that type of relationship? When did Peter’s character come into focus for you?
I’m glad you liked it! I wasn’t interested in the “terrible first marriage” trope (though I have certainly used that at times). Ophelia’s character suggested that she would have made a reasoned, thoughtful choice. At the same time, I wanted her to be startled by something new and throw herself into a marriage without forethought.
My Last Duchess is our first glimpse of Horatius, Hugo’s sadly deceased firstborn son. Did finally portraying him in all his stuffiness make you feel better or worse about killing him off?
Ahem. I live and write in Romancelandia! Who knows what actually happened to Horatius . . . I’ll just add that if I were so inclined to listen to the desolate readers who have written to offer fantastical ways by which Horatius may have actually survived, I would definitely bring him back as a very different man than he was as a youth. IF. . .
The Frost Fair that Ophelia and Hugo both attend is so magical. What activity would you be most excited to do if you could travel back in time to attend it yourself?
I would love to travel by way of Doctor Who’s TARDIS. (Check out Doctor Who’s visit to a Frost Fair!) I’d wear a gorgeous pelisse with a muff. A duke would buy me gingerbread and mulled wine, and then bring me to the dancing enclosure where we would caper about doing country dances. Or, if I could travel to Regency times, a waltz!
What’s next for you?
Wilde Child comes out March 30, 2021! It probably won’t surprise you to hear that my heroine is not only a Wilde, but wild. Lady Joan doesn’t care a fig that she regularly shocks polite society. Joan goes for broke: She cross-dresses in order to play a man’s part on the public stage—risking the Duke of Lindow’s fury and her reputation—and the only thing standing between her and ruin is a very upright young duke.
I had a lot of fun writing this book—and My Last Duchess, for that matter! I hope they both make readers very happy.