My new novel, The Ashford Affair,
comes out in just a bit over a month, on April 9th. This was a departure for me. After years of writing books set in 1803 and 1804, I had moved a hundred years up into a whole new realm: Edwardian, World War I, and 1920s England.
When beginning a new book, I always like to start with real people to use as models for my characters: after all, if someone else trod that same path in that same time, it makes me confident that my characters are in sync with their era. In the case of The Ashford Affair
, my two main historical characters, Addie and Bea, have grown up in a great house in the English countryside: Addie the poor cousin, Bea the beloved daughter of the house. Both of them find their lives interrupted by World War I, which hits just as they’re starting to think about their debuts (or, at least, Bea is!).
One of the main inspirations for The Ashford Affair
was Frances Osborne’s The Bolter
, about her much-married great-grandmother, whose life and marriage were turned upside down by World War I and who then embarked upon a series of much publicized marriages and liaisons, racketing back and forth between England and Kenya. For me, though, Idina was much more interesting as a model for the later part of the story; she was slightly older than my characters and her childhood rather different from theirs. I knew I would need other examples to draw on for that part of Addie and Bea's story.
Although the book branches out later on, to 1920s Kenya and beyond, I knew that Addie and Bea's English childhood was key to my story, since it shaped the people they were and their reactions to the changing world around them. My first port of call was, naturally, the Mitford sisters. I’ve always been a huge Mitford fan and there’s a wealth of text written both by and about that famous—or infamous—clan. Nancy Mitford’s In Pursuit of Love
and Love in a Cold Climate
both helped provide a sense of “voice” for the time, as well as providing me a model for Addie’s intimidating Aunt Vera in Mitford’s Lady Montdore.
I also owe a debt to Lady Diana Cooper, daughter of the Duke of Rutland, whose experiences nursing at Guy’s Hospital during World War provided fodder for my story (and whose memoirs filled in a number of necessary details), and, of all unlikely people, Barbara Cartland, who wrote vividly of the experience of being a debutante in the years just after the Great War, with the world turning cartwheels around them, all the usual proprieties forgotten in a rush to jazz-filled nightclubs.
But the most important model for those formative years of my characters’ lives weren’t the Mitfords (or Barbara Cartland): it was the Curzon sisters, particularly Cimmie, who was almost exactly the same age as my Addie and Bea, and, like them, had her debut delayed because of the war. The friction between Irene (the oldest) and Cimmie (the middle sister) with their father in 1919 as the older generation clung to the old standards while the younger generation found itself changed and changing with the experience of World War I helped provide a pattern for me for the dislocation between Bea and Addie and their elders-- not to mention some excellent descriptions of denuded ballrooms!
In that research phase, there's nothing like finding real people who have lived through the same events as your characters....