Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Bold Heroine in the Georgian Era

Our guest’s Lady Fan mysteries, set in Georgian England, feature the bright and perceptive Ottilia, once a lady's companion and now bride to Lord Francis Fanshawe. The first in the series, The Gilded Shroud, is followed this month by The Deathly Portent. Everyone who leaves a comment this weekend will be entered in a drawing for a free copy of the new book.

by Elizabeth Bailey

How can the female detective cope in the Georgian world?

The short answer is, she can’t, not on her own. Ottilia’s status as a lady of the genteel classes precludes her presence in a great many male-dominated domains, especially if she is unescorted. A female alone in a public place laid herself open both to annoyance and loss of reputation.

Ottilia flouts convention in that she investigates at all. Ladies did not commonly examine dead bodies and question anyone and everyone from upstairs or down as to their movements and motives. People are apt to remark upon these activities, which amuses Ottilia, but tends to put Francis on the defensive.

But Ottilia is not a woman who seeks notoriety by ignoring the rules from a spirit of rebellion. She does it for expedience when nothing else will do. Where she can, she will obey the dictates of society, even if the necessity chafes her. Indeed, she is unscrupulous in making demands upon her husband for assistance in order to get around the problems posed by the constraints of her sex.

Even in the real Georgian era, it is not inconceivable that a woman might absorb medical lore as Ottilia does from her brother, although she is barred from the profession herself. This gives her a solid advantage, but it is the only practical one. For the rest, she must rely on her intelligence, observational skills and her knack of falling easily into intimacy with strangers, whether high or low born.

There are advantages in the paucity of policing during these times, because Ottilia is unhampered by the authority network that your modern amateur sleuth must negotiate. She finds it relatively easy to bypass, or even to use the local authority for her own ends, and if she has to, she is determined enough to go head to head with anyone.

But Ottilia herself recognizes that she couldn’t conduct her investigations without Francis at her back. Apart from the clear usefulness of his sex, he is both companion and stalwart supporter, and is rapidly gaining his own foothold in the game of deduction.

As the writer, I’m familiar with the period from my historical romances, but crime has added new challenges in terms of juggling the freedoms and restrictions imposed by the age, which I have to say I enjoy tremendously. Perhaps it satisfies a little of the rebel in me who burned the bra along with Germaine Greer! To give a woman power at a time when this was socially denied is intensely satisfying.

I’m often asked why the Georgian era attracted me, and it stems purely from a teenage addiction to Georgette Heyer. I think I absorbed from her the idea of creating a flavour of the time in the prose style I use for my own historicals, rather than relying on contemporary dialogue to delineate the period.

It’s more a question of choosing a way of expressing something that feels right for the period. For example, rather than using the simple she liked I might use she favoured or she was partial to. I pick less colloquial language: hastened, whither, I am inclined to think, if you are minded, is it not, befriend, etc. Then when you add all the titles and the accents of the lower orders, it tends to hold together. I’m so used to writing in this way that I no longer consciously make these choices. It’s as though I turn on a Georgian-speak switch in my writing head.

Of course it still has to be readable and understandable to the modern ear. To use fully contemporary dialogue - as found in 18th century letters and diaries, for instance - would sound stilted today. You don’t want to echo the long-winded Victorians which can be tough on readers now, but you still want to evoke the era.

I like to think that Ottilia is as true to her time, despite its inconveniences, as it is possible to be without alienating a modern reader. As a writer, I find I have to tread a fine balance between what might, to a purist, be considered anachronistic and what serves to take a reader, replete with twenty-first century thinking and values, successfully on a journey into the past.
Elizabeth Bailey’s second novel in her Lady Fan Mystery Series, The Deathly Portent, comes out in April in the US and June in the UK. Leave a comment this weekend and you'll be entered in a drawing for a free copy.

In The Deathly Portent, the blacksmith has been bludgeoned to death and the villagers blame the local witch, a girl with second sight. The Fanshawes have broken down on the road nearby and when Ottilia hears the news, she cajoles Francis into going to Witherley, where a full-blown investigation  leads her into personal danger before she can find out the perpetrator. More details at Order the book at


Lesley Cookman said...

All your books have been great, and I love Ottilia particularly. And thank you for introducing me to this blog - very interesting!

cncbooks said...

This sounds delightful and I would love to win a copy of it!

Lelia Taylor

Shirley Wells said...

I too had a teenage addiction for Georgette Heyer. I keep promising myself I'll read them all again. So many books, so little time...

I must check out the Lady Fan mysteries. I'm intrigued to see how a female detective copes in the Georgian era.

Kath said...

Fascinating concept! I'm going looking for Ottilia! Nothing better than an historical mystery!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I'm with you on Georgette Heyer and her language, Elizabeth. To this day, I spot expressions like "how to go on" and "give him consequence" in modern and even science fiction, and when I do, I think, "Aha! Another Heyer fan!" I look forward to meeting Ottilia.

Sandra Mackness said...

This is such a wonderful blog - thanks, Liz, for your tempting taste of Ottilia! Your thoughts on writing the era are interesting and I agree there's a fine balance to achieve. You have a natural flair, it seems, given you tune in so well.

lil Gluckstern said...

I cut my teeth of reading romantic stuff on Georgette Heyer, and I love how many writers will cite her. I read a lot of British mysteries and often find myself words that are not "American." Actually, I enjoy it, I have looked up your first book and look forward to enjoying it. I get history and atmosphere and pleasure all at once.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

I too loved Georgette Heyer and my own first historical last year was a Regency romance. But I do love this whole idea of a woman detecting at that time. And I completely agree about the subtle use of the period language!

Karen (Euro Crime) said...

I'll be adding these titles to the Euro Crime database. Georgette Heyer has a lot to answer for (in a good way!)

Terry Parrish said...

I always enjoyed Georgette Heyer's books myself. And this one sounds wonderful to me. Thank you for the chance to win a copy!

Anonymous said...

Another Heyer fan here! Your detective sounds fascinating.

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Anonymous said...

I imagine even if she could get into some of those male-only enclaves, and even if she only watched (and didn't try to ask questions) her simple (female) presence would change their behavior enough that she might well not learn anything useful!

Sandra Parshall said...

The winner of the free copy of DEATHLY PORTENT is Kath. Congratulations!

Thanks to everyone who visited and commented. If Elizabeth's books sound appealing, I hope you'll look for them in a bookstore or library or online.

Jean Lamb said...

In that era, the lady of the house was supposed to know her way around a stillroom, and be expected to dose the servants and children whenever the weather was too bad for the physician or the surgeon to make to the house, if out in the country. Removing bullets is, of course, optional.

So a heroine's medical knowledge would not be out of place in that era.

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