Most of you will know from my own writing that I love any story set during the Regency. When I heard about Walks Through Regency London, I had to find out more. So here is its author Melanie Hilton to tell us all about the book, how it came to be and her own Regency romance novels.
Susan Palmquist (SP)-Tell us about yourself and how you began writing?
Melanie Hilton (MH)-Hi, and thank you very much for inviting me! I’m an awful example of how not to start writing, I’m afraid. I was a librarian and with a colleague of mine watched Harlequin Mills & Boon books being borrowed and thought “We can do that!” The trouble was, we did no research, let alone read any of the books we were aiming to emulate, and of course after many months on the slush pile our novel came back with a polite – and very short – rejection. After that we pulled ourselves together and put in both the work on the craft and the research on the genre. But we still kept getting rejections – longer and longer ones – until we had a light bulb moment and realised we would like to try historical novels. The first one was accepted and we wrote eight books together as Francesca Shaw. Then my colleague moved to the other end of the country and I had to take a deep breath and write by myself. Luckily the editors liked it, although the “voice” is very different, and I am now starting my 41st book for HMB as Louise Allen.
I’m married to a wonderful husband who is very supportive of my writing and helps with the research. We’re in the process of moving from our home in Bedfordshire to a cottage in North Norfolk where we’ve had a studio/library built in the back garden for all my research books and my desk.
SP-Have you always had a keen interest in the Regency period? When did you first decide to write Regency romances? And what fascinates you most about it?
MH-The first Francesca Shaw title was set during the English Civil War but our editor encouraged us to write Regency because of its international appeal and we were soon hooked. I love the period because it feels very modern in many ways and yet is intriguingly different. The role of women is interesting – they had far more freedoms in many ways than they had during the Victorian era, for example. The Regency stands on the cusp of the industrial age and boundaries are always more complex and edgy somehow. And on a purely frivolous note, the men’s clothes are so much more attractive!
I had a mad moment when I decided to write a book set during the sack of Rome in 410AD (Virgin Slave, Barbarian King), and my next book after the one I have just started will be set in India during the late 18thc, but otherwise I stay within about 1800-1820.
I should say that I use “Regency” in the sense of the “long” Regency, rather than the precise dates when Prince George was the Regent.
SP-And how did this non-fiction book come about?
MH-We enjoyed walking in London and finding the locations of Regency landmarks and occurrences. It suddenly dawned on me that I had so many notes that we could put together a series of walks of interest to fans of the late Georgian and Regency period. I also have a large collection of Regency prints of London and several original guidebooks and street maps. We were often approached by friendly passers-by who thought we must be lost as they found us puzzling over our map: they were always fascinated to discover that the map is dated 1814, the guidebook 1807 and that we were searching for the spot where the Prince Regent was held up by highwaymen or the location of Tom Cribb’s pub.
SP-Tell us about some of the things you discovered while you were working on it? Anything that surprised you?
MH-Perhaps the thing that surprised me most was how much of the late 18thc/early 19thc you can still find in London despite the Blitz and modernisation. One factor is the stubbornness of the Londoner in the face of radical modernisation. After the great fire Wren was frustrated in his attempts to plan a “modern” city and the same happened after the Blitz in many areas. It is still possible to trace the footprint of a medieval hospital or an ancient prison in the street pattern and even the in the detail of modern office buildings. The curving line of the eastern wall of Newgate prison, for example, is perfectly preserved in a striking new bronze-clad block. It is difficult to pick out just a few discoveries, but picking our way through sacks of rice and stacks of exotic fruit in a Soho Chinese supermarket to find the original staircase of the Turk’s Head coffee house, where Dr Johnson and most of the artistic stars of his era congregated, was a real thrill. The location of one of the most dramatic incidents – Princess Charlotte’s escape from her father the Regent – is now one of the least interesting at first sight, but the remnants of Warwick House Street have a whole new excitement when you imagine the youthful princess slipping out of Warwick House on July 16th 1814 and hailing the first hackney carriage she saw. Goodness knows what the driver thought when he found he was being asked to deliver a princess to the Queen!
SP-Any plans to write other Regency non-fiction titles like maybe a walk through Regency Bath?
MH-I’ve no plans for another walks book at the moment, and there are already a number of excellent guides to walks in Bath, but we are researching the original route of the Great North Road, the major coaching artery between London and Edinburgh. (But not on foot!)
SP-Why do you think so many women love romances set during the Regency? Is it because we all love Mr. Darcy?
MH-The number of TV adaptations and films of Jane Austen’s work have familiarised many people with the world of the “long” Regency which has helped. So too has the continuing popularity of Georgette Heyer’s work. As I said earlier, the era feels modern enough for us to be able to relate to it, yet with the clothes, the carriages, the duels and so on it has an unmistakable glamour. Even the underworld has its fascination, although there is no getting away from the fact that there was awful poverty, savage punishments for crime and frightful inequalities.
SP-For writers who want to do research on the Regency, any books or sites you can recommend that have accurate information on this period?
MH-Too many to list! I have over 500 books in my personal research library and I have found that it is always wise to cross-check facts between them and I’ll often use my collection of prints and original newspapers to back up secondary sources. If I had to choose one book I wouldn’t be without it is The A-Z of Regency London published by the London Topographical Society and for costume, anything by CW & P Cunnington.
SP-So what’s next for you?
MH-I’m thrilled to be asked to do a novel in a series that HMB are producing in collaboration with the National Trust. They are set in real National Trust properties and mingle the real-life historical inhabitants of the house with the hero and heroine of the fictional romance – I’ve chosen Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire.
In North America my next books to be published are the Transformation of the Shelley Sisters trilogy (September, October, November 2011) and in the UK the Danger and Desire trilogy (September, October, November 2011).
I’m also thrilled to be helping with the planning for A Regency Celebration – a special day for all readers and lovers of the Regency on 8th October this year in the St James’s area of London. There will be talks, quizzes, dance and costumes, guided walks around St James’s, a bookstall, Regency authors and many more attractions to celebrate Sense & Sensibility’s 200th birthday and the new biography of Georgette Heyer. There will be more information on my website www.louiseallenregency.co.uk from next month and bookings will be through the Romantic Novelists’ Association site http://www.romanticnovelistsassociation.org/index.php/activities . On Twitter look out for #RegencyCelebration.
Copies of Walks Through Regency London are available from me – firstname.lastname@example.org