(Reading) Week in Review

So, I’ve been having computer woes all week (which explains the plain-vanilla, pic-free post!). Reading email quickly at work, or trekking to the library or my parents’ house to “borrow” computers has shown me how sadly addicted I am to the Internet. But not being able to peruse Go Fug Yourself or The Orlando Bloom Files has given me more time for reading!

And my reading this week took on a distinct theme, though not on purpose–they just happened to be the books I grabbed at the library after reading email. The theme was “Dysfunctional Families in Times of Great Historical Upheaval.” Or “Hoydenish Women From Dysfunctional Families, etc.” Two great books that I was really sorry to see end!

The first was Janet Todd’s Daughters of Ireland: The Rebellious Kingsborough Sisters and the Making of a Modern Nation. This was published in 2003, and I’m surprised I missed it before! I enjoyed Todd’s bios of Mary Wollstonecraft and Aphra Behn, and coming from an Irish family I love tales of Irish history. Margaret and Mary King were the daughters of an immensely wealthy Ascendancy family. Their mother, Caroline. was a great heiress in her own right, and when she married she held her own vast estate at Mitchelstown (it didn’t pass to her husband). Caroline was friends with Queen Charlotte, and lived part of the year at Windsor. The Kings were neighbors of the famed Lennox sisters from Stella Tillyard’s Aristocrats, the Duchess of Leinster, Lady Louisa Connolly, and Lady Sarah Napier. Strangely, considering her conservative leanings, Caroline hired Mary Wollstonecraft as her daughters’ governess for a time, which would have a powerful impact on their future lives.

Margaret, the eldest daughter, married an earl, despite being tall and plain. Mary was growing into a beauty, and all seemed well for the Kings for a while. Until 1798. Margaret was a fervent admirer of the United Irishmen (led by Wolfe Tone and the Duchess of Leinster’s son Edward Fitzgerald), writing pamphlets, hosting meetings, and later hiding fugitives in her cellar. Her brother George, meanwhile, was a loyalist officer known even in those violent times for being particularly atrocious. After the Rising failed, Margaret left her husband and lived with a lover in Italy for the rest of her life.

Mary, meanwhile, grew into more of a, er, domestic rebel. She had an affair with a cousin (a married cousin!), got pregnant, and tried to elope. She was hauled back by her parents and locked away in the country. When her lover came after her, her father shot him and ended up on trial for murder. Shocking!!!

I’ve long wanted to write a story set during the 1798 Rising, but it’s hard for me to see how to make it a romance. How to find a plausible HEA in the midst of so much violence? I’m not sure the King sisters could help me much with that, but they were fascinating.

The second book I read was Adrian Tinniswood’s The Verneys: A True Story of Love, War, and Madness in 17th Century England. Tinniswood also wrote the very good By Permission of Heaven, about the Great Fire, and he certainly knows his time period (I’d also love to write a Restoration story someday…). The Verneys were a large, rowdy, wealthy family who were also (luckily for us!) packrats, who saved over 30,000 letters, documents of the Civil War/Restoration period, which was the family’s heyday. Tinniswood’s style is very readable, and by relating these very complex times to one family, one set of characters, he makes it easy to follow.

The Verneys were also a varied lot. The patriarch, a dashing military officer, died in battle as standard bearer for Charles I. He left a stodgy heir (who waffled between king and Parliament before just running off to France for the duration); 1 ne’er-do-well and very annoying son who spent his life in and out of jail, begging his brother for money and marrying and abandoning women (I really hated him!); and 1 son who died at Drogheda. Plus a passel of unruly daughters.

This book had a little of everything! Pirate uncles, father/son conflict, madness (an heiress wife who started wandering around town taking her clothes off and laughing), dynastic marriages, a wife who fought for her exiled husband’s estate, and sometimes even tender love. Above all, the women were fascinating. There were a lot of them, and few were well-behaved. There were elopements (at least 3), an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, an aunt with a (gasp!) Catholic husband, a marriage in Fleet prison, another aunt who got into fistfights with her husband in public innyards. It’s stories like this that make me dispute whenever someone says “That would never have happened back then!” because it seems almost everything happened to someone at sometime. 🙂

This is a lot of info, I know, but I tend to get carried away by books I enjoy! And I felt like I really came to know the King sisters and the Verney bunch. When I put the books aside, I found myself wondering what they would be up to next! That’s the sign of great non-fiction for me, and I hope I can learn to put in just that sort of humanity and truth in my own characters. Though Margaret King and Tom Verney might be too eccentric to be believed in fiction!!

Who are some of your favorite “characters” in history? Can anyone offer me advice in plotting out a good Irish romance?? And be sure and send Good Vibes to my computer!

About Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

Writer (as Amanda McCabe, Laurel McKee, Amanda Carmack), history geek, yoga enthusiast, pet owner!
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Pam Rosenthal
15 years ago

I do intend to refer back to the 1798 rising in my current w.i.p., Amanda, but only as part of my Irish heroine’s nightmarish backstory. An astonishingly wonderful and dark portrayal of that part of history is Thomas Flanagan’s The Year of the French. But as for making a romance out of it…?

One very interesting thing I recently learned is that during the 1820s, after Byron died in Greece, many different sorts of English took up the case of Greek emancipation. But it never occurred to anybody to speak out for Ireland.

I’m going to use that as well in the w.i.p.

15 years ago

Include Irish superstitions, for lack of a better word. Fairies, ghosts, and all the supernatural light that comes from Ireland. I love Ireland, such a mystical land.

Tracy Grant
15 years ago

Totally agree about it being hard to say “this would never have happened then”. I was just googling Elizabeth Hamilton who became the Countess of Derby (actually I was looking for her portrait by Romney in a discussion about the actress Elizabeth Farren who became the Earl of Derby’s second wife). And from the notes on the Met website with the painting, I learned that the Elizabeth Hamilton who becmae the first Countess of Derby “was unhappily married and would shortly leave her husband and children”. She apparently had an affair with the Duke of Hamilton. And then after her death the earl married a popular Drury Lane actress. Which sounds rather like the plot of a novel :-).

I used the 1798 rising in “Secrets of a Lady” as part of the back story–it’s the reason one of the major characters, Raoul O’Roarke, had to leave Britian, and it had a profound affect on his thinking about poltical change. It is a dark era to set a romance in, but as long as you could make it plausible that your characters weren’t arrested for treason, you could give them a personal happy ending and end the book with them still committed to working for what they believe in, which I think can make for a powerful ending.

Diane Gaston
15 years ago

I’ve started Perdita….

Amanda McCabe
15 years ago

Tracy, thanks for the advice! I’ve sort of been ploting a story, which ends with the couple together, but it’s somewhat bittersweet because of ideals tarnished, etc. But it’s interesting to research all the same!

I think I read a historical fiction about Eliza Farren last year! Can’t remember the author, but I believe the title was “Life Mask.” Very enjoyable. 🙂

Tracy Grant
15 years ago

Amanda, as long as the hero and heroine haven’t become complete cynics and still can work for what they believe in, I think it could work great.

I think the book you’re talking about is “Life Mask” by Emma Donoghue. Pam Rosenthal mentioned it after I had talked about the Elizabeth Farren portrait in a blog on History Hoydens. Sounds like a very interesting book that I now mean to look for.