Portia da Costa and those naughty Victorians

Our guest today is multi-published English author Portia da Costa, whose witty, sexy, mischievous writing style is an absolute delight. She’s here to talk about the Ladies Sewing Circle. Sounds very respectable, doesn’t it … over to you, Portia. First, tell us about the Ladies Sewing Circle series.

The Ladies’ Sewing Circle is one of those happy accidents really. I never really meant to write a series, but the editor liked my first Victorian story and suggested that I write some more. The Circle is a group of fairly well to do Victorian women who meet regularly, with the ostensible purpose of practicing their sewing skill, taking tea and exchanging a bit of polite social chitchat. However, once they get together, not a lot of actual sewing goes on and the chitchat is far from polite, because they’re all too busy gossiping about scandal and comparing naughty sexual stories and fantasies. I think the group probably started out innocently enough, but it gradually grew bawdier and bawdier, especially when Madame Sofia Chamfleur became its unofficial grande dame and leader.

In A GENTLEWOMAN’S PREDICAMENT, as Mrs. Sofia Harewood, she’s an inquisitive widow who yearns to enjoy the bedroom pleasures she never really experienced with her late husband. Fortunately, a friend at the Circle knows just the place for her, and that’s the House of Madame Chamfleur, a discreet establishment for ladies in search of erotic fulfillment. Sofia pays a visit to the House, and to cut a long story short, it’s everything she’d hoped for and more. And to her surprise and delight, “Madame” isn’t a Madame at all and Sofia ends up marrying him!

The second story, A GENTLEWOMAN’S RAVISHMENT, features Prudence Enderby, one of the most incorrigible members of the Circle, whose dearest fantasy is to be abducted and ravished by a ruthless stranger. Needless to say, the new Madame Chamfleur, Sofia, is able to make that dream come true for her. A GENTLEWOMAN’S PLEASURE and A GENTLEWOMAN’S DALLIANCE are stories featuring other Circle members, Lucy Dawson and Mary Brigstock. Both these ladies have a daringly sensual encounter to recount to their friends over the needlepoint and the cups of Oolong.

IN THE FLESH is the first Sewing Circle novel, and it’s the story of Beatrice Weatherly, a newcomer to the group, and young woman who’s fallen into societal disgrace by posing nude for photographs. Beatrice accepts that her ruin is her own fault, but never one to feel sorry for herself, she makes the best of a bad job by accepting a scandalous “indecent proposal” from a devastatingly handsome and wealthy ladies’ man, Edmund Ellsworth Ritchie. He’s a friend of the Chamfleurs, and he’s fallen head over heels in lust with Beatrice after seeing her sensuous poses. But what starts out as an indulgent affair and a business arrangement quickly becomes much, much more… and Beatrice and Edmund must face both their deepening feelings for each other and a horrible tragedy from his past that haunts the present and their future together.

The second Ladies’ Sewing Circle novel is entitled DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH, and will hopefully be published later this year or early next year. Adela Ruffington is the Circle member in the spotlight this time, and the story describes her love/hate relationship with her distant cousin Wilson Ruffington, who’s both a scientific genius and heir to all the family’s fortune. This strong willed and mercurial pair must weather the stormy waters of a marriage of convenience on their way to eventual happiness.

What was it like making the transition from contemporary to historical?

It was very exciting, as well as a little scary initially. I’d always told myself I probably couldn’t write a historical novel, because I wasn’t a history scholar. But when I was encouraged to try, I really enjoyed the experience, and found it wasn’t nearly as difficult as I’d feared, because over the years, I’d subconsciously gathered a lot of the historical background I needed, through my longstanding interest in all things Victorian.

What is it that fascinates you about the Victorian period?

Lots of things about the Victorian period appeal to me. The later years are my favorite part of the era, from around 1887 onwards, and I think that time in particular was an age in transition, especially for women, who were starting to see that they could be educated and independent, have rights, and pursue other kinds of work than just domestic service. The vote was a long way off yet, but women were definitely seeing as a goal to be achieved.

And, of course, the late Victorian fin de siècle was a very naughty time too, as the more risqué side of society emerged from the prim, family orientated façade of the middle years. Notorious figures like Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley and Sarah Bernhardt shone in the arts and ‘It’ girls like Lily Langry were idolized as Professional Beauties. Even the sinuous sultry, curves of 1890s Art Nouveau were an expression of eroticism in themselves.

I think what captivates me most about the period though, is the fact that despite it being a historical era, and thus an “unknown country”, we’re still very much in touch with it too. In the area where I live we’re surrounded by Victorian architecture, both great and domestic, and our British television has always provided a rich wealth of dramatizations of Victorian classics, all of which make it easy to step back in time. I think I’ve watched the Granada Television Sherlock Holmes series so often that it almost feels like 221B Baker Street is my second home. The late Victorian era is also linked to us by the advances in technology that were taking place then. The Victorians loved their cameras, so we see them as they were in their photographs, but in the period I’m writing about, sound recording and film were being developed too. I get shudders when I hear a recording such as this one of Big Ben and know that the announcer is an actual Victorian speaking to me from 1890, the year when Beatrice Weatherly and Edmund Ellsworth Ritchie meet. And it’s the same when I see this little clip, just a couple of seconds filmed by Louis Le Prince at Roundhay Park, not too far from where I live, in 1888. These moments aren’t from a costume drama; these are real Victorians too, goofing about in a garden for the camera, and I find that incredibly moving.

What did you find out in your research that surprised you?

Well, it’s not so much a surprise, more a happy, unexpected discovery, but in the course of watching Victorian set movies, I found Topsy-Turvy, and to my astonishment, I realized how much I love Gilbert and Sullivan. I’d never paid much attention to their operettas until then, and long ago in my junior school years, I’d actively disliked them because the whole school seemed to go G&S crazy for the annual production. However, coming to the music later, I was just blown away by the gorgeous melodies, the clever lyrics and smart social commentary, and the sheer, energetic artistry and bravura of Gilbert and Sullivan. I’m no singer, but when nobody is about, I’ve been known to trill along to “A Wand’ring Minstrel I”!

Do you find UK and US readers have different expectations in erotic romance? How about editors?

I’d never thought about it, to be honest. I just hope that what I write works for both readers and editors wherever they live, and I do my utmost to produce a story that’s well written, grabs the imagination, and has sympathetic, believable characters.

What’s your writing process?

Now I’m laughing. I wouldn’t dignify my way of working with the term “process”. Ideas come to me gradually and sort of gather together until I’ve got a rough idea of the story. Then I try and write an outline. An outline which I barely even look at when I come to write; it’s just there as a safety net in case I get stuck. I suppose I’m very much a pantser, really, but one who’s working with a general idea of the storyline in the background. I just potter along, pausing to go off on wild research tangents every now and again, chasing up facts that will never actually be in the book, but which I have to know for my own peace of mind. I’m a slowish writer, because my stories tend to unfold in quite a leisurely and very intense sort of way. I also sometimes have to backtrack and remove/rewrite sections because I don’t feel they’ve worked as well as I’d like.

What’s next for you?

Well, in terms of what I’m writing, I’m firmly back in the present day for the time being, working on a trilogy of contemporary BDSM Spice Briefs – THREE COLORS SEXY – that will appear at the end of the year. My next release upcoming will be another contemporary Spice Brief, out in July, called A VERY PERSONAL ASSISTANT. This one’s about a busy female executive who takes an afternoon off when she’s feeling burnt out, and ends up succumbing to the considerable charms and erotic expertise of her male PA.

As I mentioned before, I have DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH in the pipeline, and I’d absolutely love to write more Victorian fiction. But as the Spice Briefs line closes at the end of 2012, there probably won’t be any more Ladies’ Sewing Circle shorts, alas.

Like most authors, I’m waiting to hear about various ideas that are out with editors, and also I have one or two items of contemporary erotica and erotic romance that I’m planning to self-publish.

I have a print copy of IN THE FLESH to give away to one lucky commenter, and I’m happy to send it anywhere in the world.

Many thanks to the ladies of Risky Regencies for inviting me to visit!

Tell us what you love about the Victorian era–is it the clothes, the amazing corsets, or the naughtiness lurking beneath the respectable surface? Your comment or question for Portia will enter you into the drawing for the prize, and we’ll announce the winner on Monday at 7 EST.

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11 Responses to Portia da Costa and those naughty Victorians

  1. Hello, Portia!

    I’ve got to check out these books. I adore the Victorian period (I’ve written some Victorian erotica of my own, including, believe it or not, a story that features William Gilbert). I think I was a Victorian in a previous life – everything resonates and feels familiar.

    By the way, if you ever get to the U.S., there’s an amazing Victorian hotel in Tampa, Florida, that you just have to see.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_B._Plant_Museum

    Talk about inspiration!

    Good luck with your historical forays!

    Hugs,
    Lisabet

  2. Wow, that hotel/museum looks amazing!

    I too have that feeling that I must have lived in Victorian times too, and that sense of familiarity. I think that’s why it wasn’t nearly as hard as I’d expected, to slip into the world of Beatrice and Ritchie.

  3. kaisquared says:

    All that repressed sexuality under all those layers of clothing….. having to refer to piano legs as limbs….. Who did Victoria think she was kidding, all those kids didn’t just pop out of her head fully formed..

    Love the Victorian shorts!

  4. I think that’s the fascination. The contrast between Victorian ‘appearances’ and what people were *really* thinking and doing… 🙂

    I read a really good book by Matthew Sweet, ‘Inventing the Victorians’, which actually busts a lot of the myths about Victorian repression and prudery. A really good read!

  5. Portia:

    I love the idea of your naughty Victorian sewing circle. It sounds like such a naughty “proper” activity.

    Exploring the very improper in such a proper way is such an echo of the late Victorian period. It also sounds like a fascinating backdrop for some great tales.

    I look forward to reading these historicals but I’m glad you haven’t abandoned contemporaries altogether. We need more great contemporaries.

    Oh, and BTW – sending some Diva Love your way too!

  6. Yes, I love the contrast between the prim orderliness of formal afternoon tea, and the wild, transgressive talk between the women.

    Oh no, I’ll never give up contemporaries. I love writing in a contemporary voice. It’s nice to have the option to do both.

  7. Maureen says:

    I do enjoy the clothes and the politeness and primness opposed to scandals and affairs behind closed doors.

  8. Ah yes, the clothes! The late Victorian era was a diverse time on that front too. Although most well to do women were still rigidly trussed up in corsets, there was growing trend for rational and aesthetic dress too, with beautiful and far more comfortable clothing produced by shops like Liberty [very apt, although the proprietors name *was* Liberty] and sensible underwear made by Dr Jaeger. Unsurprisingly, Mrs Oscar Wilde was one notable proponent of rational dress for women, she and her husband being such major figures in the aesthetic movement.

  9. Stephanie J says:

    I think I most enjoy the change happening at that time. Portia, like you, I really enjoy the later 1880s and beyond. I’ve been working on something involving a group of friends during that time so of course I love the concept of the sewing circle! These sound fabulous. I can’t wait to read them!

  10. Hope you enjoy the Sewing Circle! One day, I’d like to write a story about the naughtiest Circle member of all, Lady Arabella Southern… but she might actually be *too* outrageous to be a romance heroine, given her erotic exploits. 😉

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