Risky Regencies

Guest Blogger Joanna Maitland

A Must-read Memoir, a Magazine, and a Silk Loom

Hi everyone! Wonderful to be here, and to be able to talk about the background and research for my current Harlequin Historicals trilogy, The Aikenhead Honours, published in March/April/May! (His Cavalry Lady, His Reluctant Mistress, His Forbidden Liaison). Like many authors of historicals, I am absolutely fascinated by history and by the people and incidents I stumble across in my research. This trilogy started because of those happy accidents.

My first piece of luck came when I was searching the British Library’s catalogue for first-hand accounts of the Napoleonic Wars. One search produced the title, “The Cavalry Maiden, Journals of a Female Russian Officer in the Napoleonic Wars.” It sounded irresistible. I’d heard of women serving in the military, especially the navy–but in the cavalry? And as an officer? That was the first book I ordered for my next trip to the Library!

And there she was, Nadezhda Durova, a Russian gentlewoman who spent nearly 10 years in the Russian light cavalry during the Wars, some of them as a common soldier. Later, she was decorated for bravery and commissioned by the Tsar himself. How could a woman live and fight alongside men without giving herself away? Admittedly, she was not particularly good-looking, if this portrait is a true likeness. On the other hand, she was much mocked for her lack of beard which could have given rise to suspicions. I think her success may have been partly because she was a consumate horsewoman and also totally fearless in battle. Perhaps her comrades could not imagine such qualities in a woman?

Rumors grew in the army of a fiercely brave woman, but it seems no one linked them with Durova. In her memoir, she writes with some glee of an encounter with a comrade who swore he had seen the fabled female soldier and would instantly recognize her! Durova, of course, made sure she sounded suitably admiring of her comrade’s cleverness and kept her secret to herself. How could I possibly pass on a heroine like that?

So, I had a basis for a heroine, but I had no hero, no background, and no plot! That was when I happened on my second piece of luck. I was back in the Library, researching a totally different topic, when I came across a copy of the Gentleman’s Magazine which recounted the visit of the Allied powers to London in June 1814, following the defeat of Napoleon and his exile to Elba. One of those visitors was Tsar Alexander of Russia, the same one who had given Durova her commission.

I couldn’t believe my luck! I had the background to a story and a basis for bringing my cavalry lady to London for an encounter with my hero. One slight problem–I didn’t have a hero!

He took a while to come onstage. I had all sorts of ideas and none of them worked. Then, one day, during a boating holiday in France, (with nothing for me to do, since the boat was marooned by floods which had broken all the locks), the hero of His Cavalry Lady appeared out of my subconscious, fully formed, as Dominic, Duke of Calder, government spy. What’s more, he brought two younger brothers with him! Suddenly, my story became a trilogy, the stories of the Aikenhead brothers, Dominic, Leo, and Jack.

It took me 2 years to write the books, much longer than usual. Why? Because I had underestimated how difficult it is to write romance centered around so much real history, and so many real places and real characters. If you read the stories, you’ll see that they are full of historical figures, from the Prince Regent and his wife and daughter, to most of the crowned heads of Europe, their families and advisors. They’re not just background–they are actors in the story. I was also using some settings I hadn’t visited, like St. Petersburg and Vienna. I needed to know what these people looked like, how they behaved, the layout of their palaces, and a thousand other details. I had to interweave my stories around their travels and their politics.

I was probably mad to start on this, but once I had, I was truly hooked. I read books, and memoirs, and letters. I studied maps of St. Petersburg and Vienna dating from 1810-1820. They didn’t tell me enough, so I arranged to visit both cities so that I could get the feel of the atmosphere and the grandeur. The sort of thing you can see in this picture of St. Petersburg.

I worked out detailed daily timelines for where each of the historical characters was during the year from summer 1814 to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and I discovered that historical characters are remarkably contrary; they’re rarely where a romance writer needs them to be for the sake of her story. What’s more, the sources often disagree about key dates.

But historical sources also produce “Eureka!” moments. When I was working on the second book, His Reluctant Mistress, which is set at the Congress of Vienna, I had no idea how I was going to end it. First, the diary of a minor civil servant produced a reference to Beethoven’s Fidelio, which provided an essential hook for my plot, since my heroine, the “Venetian Nightingale,” has the finest singing voice in Europe. Then the Gentleman’s Magazine came to my rescue again. In an edition dating from early 1815, I found a wonderful historical incident that was exactly what I needed for Leo and Sophie.

It happened in the beautiful palace of Schonbrunn, which you can see here. I won’t tell you what it is, though, since I don’t want to spoil the story! I discovered later that modern historians reckon the incident never actually happened. They may be right, but it was too good to miss. I used it anyway!

I said at the beginning of this blog that my trilogy was based on 3 happy accidents. Here’s the third: Some years ago I spent a long weekend in Lyons, the centre of the French silk-weaving incident. It was cold and wet most of the time, but I’d have visited the indoor exhibitions anyway. Two things really grabbed me. The Lyons silk museum, full of background detail on the silk industry and amazing examples of the silk weavers’ art; and a real-life demonstration of silk making on a hand loom, in a workshop in the oldest part of Lyons.

The weaver was making a glorious dusky pink velvet shot through with real gold thread. It was destined for one of the Paris couture houses, though he wouldn’t tell me which one. I could see the process was elaborate and painstaking, but I was astonished to learn that it took 3 days to weave just one metre of this sumptuous cloth. No wonder Paris couture costs a fortune! The weaving image stayed with me. I knew I’d have to use it in a book someday. Also the medieval part of Lyons is stunningly atmospheric and would make a wonderful setting for a novel. But I had no idea then how I would use it. I knew it would pop up again when I was ready for it.

And it did! In the third book, His Forbidden Liaison, the Duke of Wellington sends Jack and his friend Ben Dexter on a spying mission to France early in 1815. They’re caught up in the 100 Days, following Napoleon’s escape from Elba. Napoleon’s route to Paris will take him to Lyons, so my heroes must go there, too. They wouldn’t make it without help from Marguerite Grollier, who is–surprise!–a silk weaver from Lyons with many secrets of her own.

In case you’re wondering, Ben isn’t left out. He, too, discovers what it is to be wrapped in the silk weaver’s web–not by Marguerite, but by her sister Suzanne. Their story will be an “Undone”e-story in July, His Silken Seduction.

So you see that for a historical romance author, research is a pleasure that is never wasted!

For more information on Joanna and the Aikenhead Trilogy, visit her website!

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13 years ago

Joanna these three books sound amazing I love books that are part of a series and this set of three will be added to my must get list.

It must have been wonderful visiting the places to get so much of the facts woven into the story and being able to read about these brave heros and heroins and then writing their stories.

Great post I am looking forward to reding these books I hopefully will be able to pick them up in Australia when they are released if not I am sure I will be able to get them online

Have Fun

Joanna Maitland
13 years ago

Hi Helen

Thanks for dropping in.

Actually, one of the real problems was NOT putting the history in. There was so much of it and it was endlessly fascinating. When I was editing and revising the stories, I spent quite a lot of time taking my research out, often with a heavy heart, because it was getting in the way of the story.

For example, one of the things I saw in the royal palace in Vienna was an intricate style of napkin folding. Sort of like the lotus napkin fold, but much more elaborate. This special style was used only when the Austrian Emperor was present at dinner and the secret of doing it was known to only two people.

What’s more, that’s still true, according to the museum. Nowadays, it’s used only when the Austrian President is at a state dinner. And the secret is still kept. By two trusted people.

I really, really wanted to get that into my story, but I couldn’t. So I’m telling you all now, instead.


PS I have no info yet on publication dates for Australia. Sorry about that.

Louisa Cornell
13 years ago

Wow, Joanna, what fascinating research you found! I can’t wait to read these books! I love stories where real history is interwoven with the plot, but I can imagine it is dashed hard to get it in there.

I do love how characters just appear out of nowhere when I’m writing – surprise but welcome guests. Although sometimes they tend to take over my life AND the story. Have you ever had a character who just would not leave you alone?

Julia Justiss
Julia Justiss
13 years ago

Hi, Joanna! I’m reading His Cavalry Lady right now and really enjoying it. I, too, have always been fascinated by the few women who secretly served in the military during the Napoleonic era–I think there was a French woman as well. How did they ever pull it off? BTW, what is the title of the real cavalry lady’s memoirs? (if you included an author’s note I haven’t gotten to it yet) I would love to read her story, too.

The trilogy sounds great–and your travels. (oh, the things we do for our art!) Looking forward to reading the rest.

Joanna Maitland
13 years ago

You’re right, Louisa. Sometimes it is hard to get the history in. With me, though, it’s usually more difficult to keep the history within reasonable limits. I do tend to get carried away.

Characters who won’t leave me alone? Well, when Dominic, the hero of “His Cavalry Lady” appeared, with his two brothers in tow, they were threatening to take over the story if I didn’t give them stories of their own. And then in the second book “His Reluctant Mistress”, when Ben, the fourth member of the Aikenhead Honours, appeared, he too insisted on having a book of his own. So my trilogy is actually in FOUR parts, three print books and an e-book for Ben, who wouldn’t be left out!

But, like you, I love it when the characters are so real they start fighting back.


Joanna Maitland
13 years ago

I’m so glad you’re enjoying His Cavalry Lady, Julia. Yes, the details of the real memoirs are in an Author Note at the end but here they are, anyway:

The Cavalry Maiden: Journals of a Female Russian Officer in the Napoleonic Wars
by Nadezhda Durova,
translated Mary Fleming Zirin.

I have a copy but I think it’s out of print now. It’s a really good read, and I do recommend it.

How did they get away with it? Partly because they slept in their clothes while on campaign, I think. From what I’ve read about women serving in the Navy, it sounds as though some of their male comrades knew they were women and just ignored it, as long as they did their jobs. But it is fascinating, I agree. That’s why I couldn’t resist writing my cavalry maiden’s story!


Diane Gaston
13 years ago

Welcome to the Riskies, Joanna!
I’m speechless with envy at your Research sources!

The trilogy sounds absolutely fabulous.

Joanna Maitland
13 years ago

Thanks for the welcome, Diane!

The hardship, as Julia pointed out, is that I just HAD to visit St Petersburg and Vienna for my research. I really, really had to! Also, as it happens, Venice, which is in the second story. I already knew both Lyons and Marseilles (for the third story) so I couldn’t justify another trip there. Pity, eh?


Diane Gaston
13 years ago

St. Petersburg. Vienna. Venice. (((THUD)))

Linda Banche
13 years ago

I loved “His Calvary Lady”! I’m sure I’m going to love the others, too.

Jane George
13 years ago

A consummate horsewoman in disguise as a cavalry officer? *Right* up my alley! And I appreciate well-researched books. It sounds like you practically lived this series. I’m excited to read it. Thanks for visiting the Riskies.

One of my favorite books on “women in the military” is A Monstrous Regiment, by Terry Pratchett, which is rather a different kettle of, er, fish. But wonderful!

Joanna Maitland
13 years ago

[Picking Diane up off floor] Sorry, Diane. It IS easier for us on this side of the pond. Also, I spread the trips over two years. My only problem now is that I’d like to go again. They were all soooo fabulous.

Glad you liked His Cavalry Lady, Linda. Glowing here.

Jane, I share your admiration for Terry Pratchett. I’m in the middle of Making Money at the moment and it’s an absolute treat. Hilarious and much recommended.

The real cavalry maiden was definitely a consummate horsewoman. She took her own horse to war, a Circassian stallion called Alcides who seems to have been remarkably intelligent and faithful. In my story, my heroine is equally good on horseback, but her stallion, Pegasus, only appears in the Russian chapters. A bit part, you might say? [Sorry, couldn’t resist.]


Eva S
13 years ago

These books sound wonderful and they are going on my wishlist right now! Not only because I visited St. Petersburg last year…

Diane Gaston
13 years ago

Joan, I’m still pea green with envy! But at least I’m conscious!

13 years ago

Hi Joanne!!! I’m Cathie, I asked about you a few months ago on the HH blog because I’ve missed your books! So thrilled you have a trilogy out too! These are going to be so wonderful! I’ve so enjoyed all of yours that I read.

I too love to learn about the history and I get that from reading the historical romance books! I do get carried away when I do look up more! I’m not familiar with the Napoleonic Wars. This is wonderful to read to help understand this. So its harder to write those that outside of your usual settings you write? How did you get 3 books to be put out together? I’ll watch for that Undone book too! Thanks for the wealth of info!

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

There is only one solution to my envy over trips to Russia and Austria when needed for research–I have to move to Europe. 🙂

add me to another fan of “His Cavalry Lady”, Joanna! Great characters and a very vivid setting. now I see why!

Joanna Maitland
13 years ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

Joanna Maitland
13 years ago

If you’ve visited St Petersburg, Eva S, you were probably as gobsmacked as I was by the grandeur of it and by the way it has been restored. One thing I did learn from my research was just how rich the nobility were in the early 19th century. In one of the diaries, the Englishwoman is given a large diamond in place of an Easter egg. That was quite normal. But, at the same time, millions of Russians were serfs, owned by these same nobles.

Joanna Maitland
13 years ago

[Waving to Diane] Have you tried a remedy for your pea-greenness? Dominic, in His Cavalry Lady, deals with the heroine’s seasickness with a hot beverage of ginger (plus other, secret ingredients that I’m not at liberty to disclose…)

Cathie, hi! So glad you enjoy my books. The trilogy is coming out in consecutive months because that’s how Harlequin like to do it. That’s why there was a long gap without any of my books, since none could be published until I’d done them all. I’m just hoping that readers haven’t forgotten about me in the meantime. [grin]

My usual settings don’t have quite so much history, so I can be more flexible. In these books, I really was hidebound by the historical calendar. For example, in His Reluctant Mistress, the Russian Tsar (who is a key character in the story) is ill in Vienna for 6 weeks. Nothing I could do about that. I just had to design my story round it. Similarly, the Duke of Wellington plays an important role near the end, but I couldn’t bring him in until the date he actually arrived in Vienna.

See what I mean? However, I must be a glutton for punishment because I’m researching another story based around real historical facts. Clearly, out of my mind.

Amanda, so glad you love the book. And, even if you can’t move to Europe, maybe you’ll make Vienna and St Petersburg one day. It’s a long way, but it really is worth it. They are the most amazing cities.

Julia Justiss
Julia Justiss
13 years ago

Thanks for the details on Cavalry Maiden, Joanne! I just ordered a copy (among some other things) from Abebooks. Cheaper than a trip to St. Petersburg and Vienna…how I wish it weren’t!

Ammanda and Diane, do you think we could cobble together a tour with group rates?

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