A Regency Romance Buried Treasure
(June 6, 2001)
"First let me thank you for your wonderfully kind words. I wish my parents were alive to read what you said about my books. My father would have been proud, and my mother would have believed it! Now, as to your questions. . ."
Whenever a discussion pops up on the message boards about Regency Romance recommendations, the same names are always given: Mary Balogh, Carla Kelly, and Emma Jensen. While each of these authors are extremely talented, I feel disappointed that my favorite Regency author, Elizabeth Mansfield, is seldom mentioned. In my opinion, she is a buried treasure, and after almost 25 years of writing and publishing, she should be a household word by now. I began reading her books in the early eighties when I was a young teenager, and she became my very first "auto-buy author." In fact, she is a big reason why I continued reading romance. I enjoyed her books so much that eventually I branched out into different romance sub-genres and became hooked. Because my strong fondness for her stories, I was very pleased when she graciously consented to answer some of my (long held) questions.
Your Regencies always seem to be fleshed-out to showcase the period, but your characters aren't always tripping off to Almacks to sip the bland lemonade or other such very familiar activities. How much background do you think it's appropriate to include in a Regency?
I think a writer of historical fiction should know as much as possible about the period. The more she knows, the more comfortable she is writing her story. But throwing in irrelevant details is showing off one's knowledge. I think there should be just enough background to enable the reader to visualize the scene and to understand the characters' behavior. The most important research, in my mind, is the language of the time. I try very hard to make the characters speak as they would have at the time. I avoid all words that didn't exist in the early nineteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary is my most indispensable resource.
There are three books you've written that I would consider Desert Isle Keepers. They are Passing Fancies, Regency Sting, and The Phantom Lover. Are any of these your favorite of your books? Considering all your books, are there any you look back upon and wish you'd written them differently?
All my books are, in a way, my children, and like a good mother I try not to have favorites. I never send out a manuscript unless I think it's good. And I always have something - a character, a description, something - of which I'm proud. In Passing Fancies it's the drinking song which is not a result of drinking-song research but my own original creation. In one book - I think it's A Splendid Indiscretion - the heroine is always creating some sort of disaster, and when the hero offers for her, she tearfully gives him a list of her qualities that make her unsuitable for him. I love that list. In another book I described a minor character in sarcastic terms, and the writing sounded to me a little like Jane Austen. I remember dancing around the room in delight.
Of course, I secretly do like some of my "children" more than others: Love Lessons, because it's in the first person and has its own voice; An Accidental Romance because it has all that funny verse; The Frost Fair, because it tells about a true occasion that no one wrote much about; A Grand Deception, not only because it's the only double-length Regency I've ever written but because the desperate heroine, instead of becoming a governess (which is all too commonplace), becomes a teacher in a charity school (an authentic recreation of what those schools were like).
See? I forced myself to stop. I guess I am a mother, because I could go on and on extolling the virtues of all my offspring. What I think is interesting is that I don't find any trend in what the readers favor. Years ago, it seemed to me that many readers favored A Very Dutiful Daughter, which surprised me because, like you, I secretly prefer The Phantom Lover. But as time went on and the number of books increased, I haven't discerned any particular favorite. I'd love to hear from readers to tell me what their preferences are.
Speaking of A Splendid Indiscretion, Ada, the heroine in it, is quite scatterbrained. Some readers might say that she borders on what we at AAR term the TSTL (Too Stupid To Live) heroine. Personally, I liked her, and I thought that the story's internal conflict - whether the hero could stand to live with such a ditzy woman - was rather realistic and original. Why did you create such an absent-minded character.
As far as the heroine of A Splendid Indiscretion is concerned, I don't believe her to be TSTL. Absentmindedness is not stupidity. I like a heroine to be more than a blonde, suave beauty. Flaws in a character make her human and well-rounded. And how can she be stupid when she recognizes her flaws so well and tries so hard to overcome them? Part of making a novel worth reading requires characters to be kinetic - to grow and change. If the character has no flaws, she's static and flat. Incidentally, I hate it also when the heroine is TSTL and does dumb things just to keep the plot going.
At one time a Regency Romance was all but guaranteed to be kisses only sensuality. Now some authors are adding more. How do you feel about this? And, along those lines, you've been writing for quite some time - what do you think are the major changes you've seen in the Regency sub-genre/romance genre in general since your first book was published? Which changes go into the plus column and which go into the minus column?
I strongly feel that, for a Regency, kisses are enough. I've expressed my ideas on the subject in an article that's been reprinted on the web several times. One of the romance magazines reviewed one of my books recently on a page with several other reviews. The other reviews were all graded "sensual." Mine was graded "sweet." I guess that's me. Sweet.
I can't write a good answer to the rest of this question because I make a point of not reading other Regencies. I don't want to be influenced by them.
How did you begin writing, writing romance, and writing Regency Romance. Feel free to go back into your history as far as you'd like. Also, share your publishing history, if you wouldn't mind. And, please include the romances you read that inspired you along the way.
All through my girlhood I'd been a reader of Georgette Heyer's Regencies. When she died, there was only a short obituary in The New York Times. I knew that her books were selling in the hundreds of thousands, so I suspected that the writer of the obit didn't really know who she was. That led to me write an essay about her and why she wasn't - and could never be - Jane Austen. That essay changed my life.
I entered it in a competition and won. An agent who saw it asked me, "Why don't you write the sort of book you're writing about?"
I blinked. Why not? I asked myself, and sat right down at my old typewriter. The story came so easily that I still can't believe it. In three short weeks I'd written Unexpected Holiday. It was as if the story had been sitting somewhere inside me just waiting to come out.
When the agent read it, he didn't like it. He said he'd expected something more exciting. What he really meant was that he wanted something sexy. I was too young and naive to catch on, so I sat down and wrote the opening chapters of My Lord Murderer, hoping that would be exciting enough to please him. I never heard from him again.
What I learned later was that he'd decided to leave the agenting business. Without telling me, he sent both my manuscripts to another agent in New York. One evening, while I was preparing dinner for the family, the phone rang. A female New York voice identified herself as an agent and announced, "I sold both your books."
I thought I took the news calmly, but my family says that I jumped up so high they thought they'd have to scrape me off the ceiling.
As far as my publishing history is concerned, it's pretty simple. After the incident above, I chose to stay with Berkley. They've been publishing and reissuing my Regencies for more than 20 years. They "own" the name Elizabeth Mansfield. That's why my other books - a immigrant family saga, A Morning Moon, and my two American history romances, To Spite the Devil and Rachel's Passage, are written under other names. (Paula Reibel, Paula Jonas, and Paula Reid, respectively)
Who are your favorite authors? What are your favorite books?
Since I was an English major and an English teacher, I have many favorites. Jane Austen since girlhood. George Eliot, Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf. Shakespeare, Shaw and Stoppard for drama. Hundreds of great poets. Of the novelists today, there are many women whose work I try to keep up with, like Ann Tyler and Jane Smiley. I read almost all of John Updike, and I especially adore Philip Roth.
Some authors enjoy writing because they love words. Other authors enjoy writing because they love to tell stories. Then, of course, there are authors who love both. Where do you fit on this continuum, and were you a "bookie" growing up?
I think I'm both. I was a bookie as a kid, and I guess I still am. I remember that when I was a pre-teen in the Bronx, my idea of great joy was to be left alone for a couple of hours with a book. In summer on the fire escape, in the winter on an armchair under a blanket. I remember discovering (and loving) the first Regency writer ever. Before Georgette Heyer. Does anyone know about the novels of Jeffrey Farnol? If I had a free afternoon and a novel by him to read, I was in heaven. In one of my books, A Brilliant Mismatch the hero, Oliver, is on a walking tour. This is a kind of an obeisance to Farnol, whose book The Broad Highway is about a man on a walking tour. (His books seem dreadfully corny to me today. Isn't it sad?)
I think you have a real flair for different types of speech. Quite often you distinguish your characters by the variant of English they use. Do you like linguistics? How did you get comfortable writing different types of dialogue?
There's a kind of trick to writing dialect. The writer should make only small, suggestive changes, rather than try to make in altered spelling a replica of the real accent. Most of the time it's enough to make small hints, like dropping the final g in a word, like 'goin' or changing 'you' to 'ye.' Too many spelling distortions can distract the reader.
Yes, I love the English language. I think that writers who write historicals should immerse themselves in the language of the time. Then they can sound both authentic and comfortable with the words they use.
Please share with our readers some of your personal history.
I was born in the Bronx. I went to Hunter College, which was free to poor girls like me. I was a junior high school teacher, then high school, and then a college teacher. I taught English and Drama. I loved teaching, and still do it occasionally. I always wrote plays and humor pieces, with modest success. When the Regencies took off, I became a full-time writer. I'm contentedly married to a metallurgical engineer who doesn't read fiction. (He likes math books!) I have a son ( a lawyer who's a good writer), a daughter (who's a technical writer and songwriter), and a granddaughter who's seven. I keep wondering if she's going to like my books some day.
I know you've written non-Regency Romances. Why do you like the Regency setting best? We recently did a column on what makes for a romantic setting, so how would you answer that question in relation to the Regency? And, tell us a little about the non-Regencies as well.
I suppose I like the Regency because it was a gracious time, if you were financially sound. Civilized, literate, mannerly. (No period is romantic for those who are poor and struggling.) It was Jane Austen who made me love it, and she never wrote about the nobility. I write about the upper classes because the genre demands it. My American history romances deal with ordinary people. (I remember my Socialist immigrant father once asking me in annoyance why I always write about "lords and lordesses.")
Your comment that the genre requires you to write aristocratic heroes and heroines is interesting because I think that your characters tend to be a bit less exalted than those found in most Regencies. A sampling of your heroes includes two ship captains, a business manager, an American frontiersman, and many untitled younger sons of the nobility. These were all people on the fringes of the ton. Given no genre constraints, would you go lower in designing your characters?
Yes, I would "go lower." In fact, I have. In my two American history novels, To Spite the Devil and Rachel's Passage, the characters are ordinary people (status-wise, not character-wise). In the first, the hero is a bondservant; in the second, a printer. In my Jewish family saga, A Morning Moon the characters are all poor and struggling.
How long have you been writing professionally? How long does it take you to research and write a book? How much of your life is given over to your writing? Do you do a lot of reading (for pleasure as opposed to research)? How would you advise someone wanting to write historical romance to best research the period?
I've been writing full-time since the late 70s. It takes me at least three months full time to write a Regency that doesn't need special research. (The Frost Fair, for example, which required some difficult probing into archival material, took longer, as did the American historicals.) I do love reading, and for pleasure I read mainstream novels, biographies, essays and non-fiction, too. Not only about the Regency period. I'm politically a liberal and subscribe to liberal magazines and literary ones, like The New Yorker.
Yes, I spend most of my time writing. I love it. I don't advise anyone to do it unless they love it for its own sake. If one does it for fame and fortune, it's won't work.
One of your books, Love Lessons, is written in the first person. I know of only one other traditional Regency written in first person, The Gypsy Heiress by Laura London. Did you like writing in that format? Would you do other books in the first person, particularly after the success Joan Wolf has had doing the same with some of her historical romances?
I love writing in the first person, but editors think readers don't like it. The subject was discussed once on my web page, and there was general agreement among the participants that first person distracted them. I personally don't agree. I like reading it and writing it. It gives the writing a distinctive voice.
Quite often your books begin with either the hero or heroine already engaged or otherwise committed to the wrong person. Why?
I didn't realize that I often use that plot device. I'm glad you made me aware of it. I'll keep it in mind.
Do you have a project you are working on now?
Yes. I'm writing a Regency called Girl with a Persian Shawl. (No guarantee that the title won't be changed.) It about a girl in a painting. It does not begin with the heroine committed to the wrong person.
Elizabeth Mansfield died on December 21, 2003.
Her Washington Post obituary quotes heavily from this interview, without crediting AAR as its source.
A week later they printed a clarification/correction