I am hurrying toward a book deadline (Monday! Oh dear!), and so my visit to the ballroom today must necessarily be brief. On this, the penultimate + 1 day of 2012, I haven’t the courage to offer retrospective commentary on the past year or the presence of mind to even peek into the next. Instead I will offer today a taste of what I’ve been busy with during the past many months.
Castles and tiaras.
I am writing a series, you see, about a trio of beloved sisters searching for a prince. And since princes need castles and princesses need tiaras (really, don’t they?), I have been indulging. A lot.
So today I share with you lovelies one of each, my favorites from the positively arduous research I did this year visiting castles and trying on tiaras. (Work work work!)
Chenonceau graces not one but two banks of the gentle and beauteous River Cher. The Cher is south of the Loire River, which stretches across northern France and created a region that is home to many, many castles. I adore Chenonceau. To me it simply shouts fairytale! I love it so much I’ve set part of the book I’m writing in a fictional castle modeled after Chenonceau. How couldn’t I? Just look at it… graceful arches that dip into their mirror reflections, elegant lines, charming turrets, a gorgeous formal park that recedes into evergreen woods… Fairytale!
And in case good looks don’t suffice, Chenonceau has a scandalous history too. King Henri II gave it to his lover Diane de Poitiers, twenty years his senior and vibrantly beautiful and with a brain to make excellent use of that beauty. Years later when Henri died, his widow, Catherine de Medici, threw Diane out of the castle and proceeded to have fabulous parties there (can you blame her?), including balls and a faux naval battle staged on the river.
But royals weren’t the only denizens of Chenonceau. At one time the attic was converted into a convent for Capucin nuns, with a drawbridge between the floors to discourage nocturnal interminglings of holy ladies and immoral lords. Oo la! (Probably a good thing, too, considering at least one of the lords that visits my fictional Chenonceau.)
Now for the tiara…
Antique tiara (ca. 1880), via Christie’s
I’m very fond of simple jewelry, and while a tiara can’t very well be considered that, precisely, I do like the modesty of this one. The description from the Christie’s site (where it’s up for a cool L25,000-L35,000, in case you were wondering what to get me for my next birthday) notes the ”stylised fleur-de-lys” design, which I particularly like as the hero of my book is half-French.
Well, Christmas has come and gone. The Egg Nog has been drunk, the decorations are looking a little dusty, and the presents have all been opened, played with and sitting in their boxes on the table, taking up space until we figure out where to put them. Lady B is of course ecstatically showing off the gifts we got her to a few morning callers – I like to think that she particularly favors the watch I gave her because, come on, obviously it was the best – when she calls me to join her.
“Ah, and here is Miss Noble,” she declares as I enter the room, “who gave me simply the loveliest watch… good heavens Miss Noble, what has happened to you?
It should be mentioned at this time that my hands are practically covered in ink.
“I, er… well, I was writing.” I am a writer after all.
“What were you writing, a thousand page manifesto?” Lady B demands.
A New Year’s Resolution postcard (yes, they used to make resolution cards!) from 1909. A little after our time, but I do enjoy a limerick. And a jester.
“Dear me,” pipes up one of her guests, who by the ermine trimmed and diamond encrusted muslin day dress I can only surmise is Lady B’s rival, the Duchess of Dovedale, “did your quill explode? I know the best quill maker in London my dear, don’t let Hortense here direct you to her shoddy penmakers.”
Lady B shoots her a withering look. Then, to me she says “Did your pen explode, my dear?”
By the look Lady B was giving me, I knew that by no means was I to answer in the affirmative. Doing so would cost her socially and me in ways I do not even want to contemplate. Lady B can be dastardly that way. (Although, it should be noted that quills are REALLY difficult to use. What I wouldn’t give for a ballpoint pen. Or a laptop.)
“Er, no ma’am.” I try, hiding my hands behind my back. “I was simply wrestling with my resolutions. I’ve gone through quite a bit of paper trying to decide what they should be.”
“Resolutions?” the Duchess of Dovedale asks. “Isn’t it a little early to engage in such trivialities?”
“Is it trivial, Carpathia,” Lady B intones, “to attempt self improvement? To be of the mind that a New Year can bring about fresh perspective, and become a more civic minded individual? After all, even you are not wholly perfect.”
“Well, I…” the Duchess attempts, but Lady B cuts her off.
“No! I applaud Miss Noble for resolving to better herself and society in the New Year! We could all take an example of her!”
“Er…” I say, a little uncomfortable. “Thank you?”
“Now, Miss Noble,” Lady B says kindly, but with her steel, “tell Her Grace what your resolutions will be.”
“Well,” I hedge, “I want to write another book this year.”
“That is not a resolution, that is your profession,” she admonishes.
“Well, I intend to write more. Increase my output with work, that is.”
“As evidenced by your working so hard you exploded your quill,” the Duchess infers, slyly.
I debate for a moment whether I should fess up to having been doodling on half those pages while contemplating my life choices, but I decide against it.
“Sure,” I say instead.
“What else, what else?” Lady B demands. “What kind of good do you plan to do?”
“Um. Is it considered good to want to lose ten pounds?”
Both ladies blink at me. “Lose ten pounds?” The Duchess of Dovedale asks, perplexed. “Do you intend to repay a gambling debt?”
“Yes, of course, all my authoresses pay their debts promptly,” Lady B hastens to assure. “Although I think giving up gambling altogether may be a better resolution, Miss Noble. What else have you planned?”
“Actually, that was all I had so far,” I admit sheepishly.
“That’s it?” she cries, shaking her head. “What a waste of good ink and paper!”
“Now, now,” the Duchess of Dovedale smirks, “self improvement is a difficult thing to master. Do you think you could do any better with your New Year’s Resolutions?”
“By God I do!” Lady B says confidently. “I can think of a dozen better New Year’s Resolutions!”
“Well,” the Duchess challenges, “what are they?”
What *are* Lady B’s New Year’s resolutions? And what are yours? And can anyone think of a more creative resolution for me than to write more and lose weight? I’m running low on ink!
‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the day, the authoresses were plotting their evening soiree. The knee breeches were hung by the chimney with care, in hope that some rogues soon would be there.
Mostly, we were bustling about, arguing Lady B into some newfangled Christmas ideas. Lady B resisted the Christmas tree, staunchly declaring that in her youth, a few holly boughs and a Yule log were more than good enough. A whole tree? Decadence! She caved on the question of the tree once she heard that Queen Charlotte had one. (True fact: George III’s consort introduced the Christmas tree into England in 1800, although they didn’t really become generally popular until the reign of her granddaughter, Queen Victoria). Although the deciding fact was probably that the Dowager Duchess of Dovedale, her arch rival, didn’t have one.
“Ha! I’ll trump that old bat!” we heard Lady B mutter delightedly to herself, as she slung some extra baubles on the tree.
But, right now, we’re in the midst of debating our next big move: introducing Lady B to the concept of caroling. We know we’re going to have to plot our program carefully. She’s definitely going to want something Albert can squawk along to, and nothing too musically complicated. (Lady B has delusions of being able to carry a tune.)
How about the Little Drummer Boy? suggests Katie. Albert can squawk the rum pa pum pums.
Gaelen, who has come back to join us for the holidays, makes a face. You know how Lady B feels about children….
Ah, yes. Something about liking them better lightly sautéed. Whether this has something to do with Monty’s childhood—the words “limb of Satan” may have been used— we’re not quite sure.
Tessa sighs. I guess that means Some Children See Him is out, too.
Let’s go old school, says Gaelen. The Holly and Ivy, Good King Wenceslas, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen… you can’t go wrong with those.
Sarah grins. Or we could go new school. How about Tim Minchin’s White Wine in the Sun?
I’m going for the traditional vote, Miranda hastily says. Hark the Herald Angels Sing.
Or Silent Night! Kate chimes in. She thinks for a moment and then makes a face. Although Lady B isn’t very good with silence.
We’re all stymied, until we hear a knocking on the door. A voice with a thick Scottish accent calls, How about the Twelve Days of Christmas?
Cautiously, Tessa opens the door to the Ballroom, and in comes—- a sock wearing tartan? No, it’s two socks wearing tartan.
We are the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theater, one explains.
And so am I, says the other.
And so is he, agrees the first. If a sock can be said to beam, he beams at the assembled authoresses. We’ve come to sing you The Twelve Days of Christmas.
Well…. I’m not quite sure what Lady B will make of their rendition of the Twelve Days of Christmas, but knowing Lady B, I’m guessing that she’ll agree that a pear tree is rubbish packaging for a present.
Most of you who are reading this are reading it while I’m on a plane. And, as I’m writing this well ahead of the time you’re reading it, I can only hope that I have Internet access in the sky and can reply to your comments! But yes…it’s the 22nd of December and most of the universe (it seems) is in an airport, on a train or in traffic! Holiday travel is upon us.
It’s worth noting that there are few things I like less than holiday travel, as it all-too-often involves airplanes and the ever-present possibility of there being a winter storm while I’m in an airplane. That said, it occurs to me that holiday travel in 2012 is definitely better than holiday travel in 1812 for any number of reasons, not the least of which was this:
Traveling in the winter in a carriage could not have been a picnic.
Oh, I know what you’re thinking, “But Sarah! Surely you’ve read the novels! Surely you’ve written the novels! There’s always plenty of room and a virile, warm male willing to cuddle beneath a toasty traveling blanket!” To that I say, in novels, yes. But in real life? It was cold and drafty and cramped and I’m guessing that warm virile male was just as grumpy as I would be and decidedly not in a cuddling mood.
Also, it doesn’t have much shock absorption, and the roads…well…let’s just say that if you were traveling any real distance through cold, wintry England, you’d bounce around in there. And not in a good way.
Add to it the fact that if it did snow (very possible in late December in central and northern England, the riders had to disembark and walk while the poor horses yanked the carriage through the snow. So now it’s cold, you’re wearing a dress, and you’re walking. Yikes.
All this is not to say that I either a) apologize for writing so many scenes in what seem to be clown-carriages, or b) plan to stop doing it. BUT…it is to say that I am, I suppose, grateful that I am right this very minute, traveling across a country in five hours instead of five months (assuming 20 miles a day…which is the general rule), albeit in a metal tube.
So…here’s to advances in travel! I hope yours is easy and safe…and ends with lots of love and excellent gifts.
Are you a holiday traveler? Or one of the lucky ones who gets to stay home and have everyone come to you?
After today, there are only two more Ballroom Blog posts before Christmas, and I must say, I am fully in the holiday spirit. And from the sound of it, Lady B is too.
“Good King Wenceslas…”
I can hear her singing as she overseas the servants as they continue last minute decorations in preparation for all of the family arriving for the holidays. From what I hear, she’s been singing ever since Kate’s post.
Part of my good cheer and holiday spirit stems from the recent trip I took to Prague.
I had not seen snow in seven years. All right, technically this isn’t strictly true, as there was that freak snow storm that we drove through on our way to Yosemite, but all of the snow was gone by morning and we never had a chance to walk out in it.
Prague, however, was a magical winter wonderland.
And when I say magical, I mean, it felt more Hogwartsy than Hogwarts. I mean, in a city with a history steeped in alchemy and mysticism, you’re bound to round some corner and step into a special room that only infrequently makes an appearance, or perhaps stumble into an unusual alleyway. And Prague is the location of one of the most famous Golem stories.
This is not the golem beside me, but this is one of the few photographs of me in which I am not completely covered by the scarf I was wearing.
Lady B: That’s a very strange painting. I cannot make out the brushstrokes.
Sabrina: That’s because it’s a photograph, Lady B. I’m certain we’ve discussed photographs before… no? Have we at least discussed lithographs, because I brought you back this wonderful print by the famous Moravian Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha.
Alphonse Mucha’s poster for Joan of Arc (1909)
And I brought a little something for Albert. Not lobster patties, but since sausage is ubiquitous over in the Czech Republic, I figured…
<< Squawk! >>
Albert swoops down and snatches the food from my hands.
Well, that’s one way to show that he likes it.
I liked it too. In fact, I liked quite a bit of food I normally don’t eat. As we strolled through the Christmas markets, I sampled hot wine and mead (just to keep warm, of course!) and roasted chestnuts. I’ve always loved roasted chestnuts and when I could no longer buy them on the streets of Manhattan, I was quite sad. However, I was very satisfied in Prague!
The Christmas Market in Staroměstské náměstí
And with all that talk of Christmas Carols and Good King Wenceslas, it turns out no one calls Wenceslas by that name in Prague. I think that must be his Latinized name, as there he is known as Vaclav, and Wenceslas square is actually Václavské náměstí (not pronounced the same as the term “namaste” that I know from Yoga class)
Lady B: Yoga?
Sabrina: I know the word is strange, but I am completely certain, Lady B, that you remember this day.
I tried to take as many photographs of Christmas trees as I could, unfortunately, all the pictures of me look a bit ridiculous because I was so cold I tried to hide as much of my bare surface area as possible.
With a Christmas Tree at Prague Castle
In Václavské náměstí
So even though it was the second week of December that I visited Prague, I feel as if I’ve had my “White Christmas.”
Lady B: I do love fresh snow. I wonder if it will snow here in time for Christmas…
Alas, unless I drive into the mountains, there is very little chance of that here in Southern California. How about you? Is anyone going to have snow for Christmas this year?
Last week, my latest novella, The Scandalous, Dissolute, No-Good Mr. Wright, came out from Avon Impulse! The title says a great deal about the hero. :) As for the heroine, Eliza Cade–she’s the youngest of four sisters, and not allowed to come “out” until the three older ones are married.
I didn’t grow up in a large family–there were just two of us kids, plus my parents. And though I love my family dearly, I’ve always been rather fascinated by the dynamics of large broods. Especially at Christmas. There’s a sort of joyful chaos that seems to reign at their family holiday celebrations. And there are some fictional families I’ve come to feel so fond of, so close to, I wish I could crawl into the books and be present for their Christmas dinner.
For example, the March family.
Little Women is not really a Christmas book, but I always closely associate it with the holiday. After all, it’s right there in the first line: “‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo.”
I read the book countless times as a growing girl. Over and over, I loved reading about Amy’s limes and drawing pencils, the copies of Pilgrim’s Progress all four March girls received from Marmee, and the Christmas breakfast they shared with their poor neighbors, the Hummels. Growing up, I always longed to be part of one of Jo’s plays and to sing carols around the piano as Beth sang and played. And maybe catch Laurie under the mistletoe.
Another family I’d love to join for Christmas?
If the Weasleys can make even orphaned, unloved Harry Potter feel welcome, they can surely make room for me at their table. I want to curl up in their tumbledown house, open Christmas crackers with the twins, look through Mr. Weasley’s collection of Muggle artifacts, and pull on a desperately ugly knitted jumper from Mrs. Weasley. And look at that tree! It’s like my hair is turning ginger, just with the force of my wishing to be in that scene.
Of course, all imagining aside–we have our own sprawling, joyous family of sorts here in The Ballroom. Eight authoresses, many rakes a raking, plenty of ladies dancing, one oft-leaping Lord Monty, our many wonderful guests. And a parrot in a fir tree….
“But this is not at all fictional, Miss Dare!” Lady B insists from across the room. Albert is helping her rearrange a few of the Christmas ornaments.
Oh, of course not!
Your turn. Which fictional family’s holiday celebration would you want to join?
Handel’s Messiah is playing in the background, a pot of Fortnum’s Christmas Tea is brewing, and the presents are– mostly– wrapped. Which means it’s time for a bit of holiday reading.
Of course, there are always the classics, like Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, but what I really love are the annual crop of Christmas-themed novels that hit the shelves. There’s nothing like a good holiday romance to make you all teary. I got all sniffly last year over Lori Wilde’s The First Love Cookie Club and Debbie Macomber’s Angel books.
Then there are the madcap Christmas mysteries, like Donna Andrews’s Six Geese A-Slaying (a Christmas parade that goes very wrong when someone murders Santa), Kasey Michaels’s High Heels and Holidays (a Regency hero who has materialized in his author’s apartment uses his sleuthing abilities to solve a holiday-themed murder) , and, one of my all time favorites, Elizabeth Peters’s Trojan Gold.
Saving the best for last, there is also a treasure trove of historical romance set around the holidays. Most recently, Deanna Raybourn released a holiday installment for her Victorian-set Lady Julia books, Silent Night, but there is also a vast wealth of oldies but goodies, like Judith McNaught’s Regency-set short story in the old anthology, A Holiday of Love.
For those looking for a wider range of recommendations, both Publishers Weekly and Dear Author just released their “Best Of” Christmas romance lists (and the AAR folks have promised that theirs will be up next week).
The other night, Lady B. had the most terrible dream. Right in the middle of one of her glittering soirees, Boney set off a frightful EMP blast, shorting out all electronics… ANACHRONISM ALERT, ANACHRONISM ALERT… Sorry, scratch that.
She dreamed that right in the middle of one of her glorious soirees, a strange new strain of plague escaped aboard a rat from a Carpathian cemetary, swept across Europe in minutes, and before the footman had finished making the rounds with the tray of lobster patties, the Zombie Apocalpyse was upon us.
The Ballroom instantly went into lockdown, readers, guests, authoresses, parrots and toucans alike, arming themselves for the fray with fishforks, cheese knives, their beaks, or the jagged edges of broken champagne bottles.
As the moaning hordes approached from the terrace, (we think they may be the non-readers of the world, the TV-Only Folk) Lord B shook off his brandy stupor quickly enough to order the French doors locked and bolted. Gentlemen rushed to pull the shutters closed and nailed them in place.
Even Monty had suddenly sobered up, shrugging off his flirting, (Lady B suspected it was only a dream at that point). Our valiant young rakehell was ready to fight to defend the ladies, not that they necessarily needed defending.
Indeed, Sarah had already equipped herself with the fire poker, and Miranda now produced a small pistol from her reticule, coolly checking the chamber.
Remember, aim for the head. Photo cred. by Eric Ingrum
Lauren had learned a few good moves with which to trick the devious foe, thanks to her extensive research for her Pink Carnation books. And Sabrina (unafraid of the hot stuff!) grabbed a fully lighted candelabra to ward off the mindless zoms.
Tessa fortunately had her Rita award with her (because hey if you won one, wouldn’t you carry it with you everywhere too?). Turns out a Rita is of just the right heft and weight for clobbering zombies that get too close.
Katharine was barking ordersnicely asking the maids to rush upstairs and make sure the bedchamber windows were secure. Kate Noble was wisely doing the same for the wine cellars. The Apocalypse might be upon us, but at least we were well stocked with an array of excellent vintages and more importantly had our friends with us.
I, meanwhile, had climbed up on the roof of Beaufetheringstone House to peer out over London and assess the situation, as I am wont to do. I rushed back down to report that White’s was overrun, Almack’s was a screeching slaughterhouse of undead debutantes and half-devoured dukes, and Parliament itself was under siege (at which news, a few guests had the dreadful manners to cheer, and Lady B duly harrumphed with disapproval in her sleep).
The zoms were hungry.
It was a horrible dream. Even for a supreme hostess like Lady B, the prospect of being locked up indefinitely with hundreds of her closest friends, waiting for flesh-eating zombies to storm the premises, was a test of even Her Ladyship’s love of pleasant company.
~ FORTUNATELY ~
Intense terror awoke Her Ladyship. She sat bolt upright in her duchess bed and, heart pounding, breathed a sigh of relief to find it was only a nightmare.
But then… came the gnawing recollection of something Gaelen had told her weeks ago. That 12/21/12 marked the End of the Mayan Calendar, and this date was now only NINE DAYS AWAY!!!
Which begs the question, Will This Wind…?
All right, so maybe 12/21 isn’t really going to be the End of the World. One could only hope–!
But it is an end for me, so it’s rather a sad announcement today. I’ve so enjoyed being a part of the Ballroom Blog for the past year and a half, but now that I’m writing in two genres, I realized I really must pare down my schedule a little. Buckle down on my work. I’ll still be around–underfoot!–and will remain a Ballroom Support Personnel, but I won’t be an official Ballroom author next year.
Since one of my first Ballroom Blog posts begam with Monty Python (Silly Walks) and An Ode to British Humour, it seems fitting to finish with them, too. Leave ‘em laughing, as they say. If you’re interested in being alerted when my next book comes out (August, 2013) please stop by my website and join my newsletter signup.
I want to thank Lady B. and Albert, Lord B. and Monty and his toucan, all of my fellow authoresses who have made participating in this blog such a joy, and many, many thanks to you wonderful readers who have come and befriended us here. I’ll miss you, but (in the immortal words of Puss in Boots/Shrek: “I must not cry!”) I will still be around to visit when I’m not writing, writing, writing. (If you want to get a hold of me, you can always email me thru my website or check my own blog there to see what I’m up to.)
Anyway, that’s the news. But enough of all this glum talk.
I had yet another reason for writing about the end of the world today. That’s because it’s a topic I ran into when I was writing my next book (the August 2013 release, My Notorious Gentleman, second to last Inferno Club book).
That book (Trevor’s story if you’re following the series) takes place in 1816, the Year Without A Summer. What happened is that a huge volcano called Tambora erupted in Indonesia and shot ash up 26 miles into the stratosphere, where it was high to get picked up by the trade winds and global wind currents. This eruption is estimated to have been the equivalent of 20 Hiroshima bombs!!! So the ash ended up blocking out the sun (partially) for the next year or so, as far away as Europe and even America.
Believe me, they thought it was going to be the end of the world then, too. Though the Industrial Revolution was underway, it was still an agrarian world, and this event killed crops across the planet–corn/oats being also the main fuel for their transportation, ie horses. They couldn’t feed their animals or themselves–just as 20 years of economy-killing wars were ending.
So, Lady B would not be such a stranger to dire times. It is nice to keep that in mind when the end of the world seems near. It helps keep it in perspective.
BTW my husband and co-writer of Middle Grade novels, Eric (the E. in E.G. Foley) teaches 7th-8th graders and he wants parents to know that the kids out there are scared about all this End of the World talk. So if you’ve got kids at home around that age where they don’t always tell you what they’re thinking, that’s what he’s hearing at school, so give ‘em a hug and let ‘em know the world’s not ending, if you haven’t already done so. But of course you probably already know that! Anyhoo…
My question for the day is, if the Mayans turned out to be right and the world WAS going to end 9 days from now, what would you do with your final days on earth? Hmm. I’ll have to ponder that myself, cuz I have no idea…!
Last year I bribed Albert to give me a sneak-peek at Lady B’s Christmas letter. I discovered that our esteemed hostess was not above embellishing the news of her myriad relations in order to provide her friends with sensational Christmas morning reading. This year she kept Albert locked up and I was forced to recruit Monty and Harold as spies. While Monty had his latest black eye attended to, Harold swiped Lady B’s draft and brought it to me hidden in his large toucan’s beak.
The sheet of paper was a little chewed up so I wasn’t sure I had read everything correctly. Until I discovered a copy of People magazine that one of the Authoresses had brought through the time-space continuum and left in the downstairs water closet. It appears that Lady B has been drawing on outside inspiration.
We can only guess which version of the various on dits will make the cut. I will let the Ballroom denizens make their choices and attempt to influence the final decision.
My cousin the Countess of Fecundlake was lately brought to bed. Since the last time I saw her she had swollen to the size of a small pony, I was not surprised to learn she had given birth to triplets, all daughters, much to the distress of Lord F.
My cousin Ferdie Moylan-Hazwell (pronounced Marzipan-Hatbox for those ignorant of the English language) recently made a surprising announcement.
Gels these days have no idea how to behave. In my day we merely danced, flirted, and exchanged opinion on the legs of the best-looking rakes.
It has come to my attention that a group of dandies held a contest to decide on the most fashionably garbed lady in London.
Duchess of Cambridge (Regency style)
Seriously readers. Do we have any doubt who Lady B will pick for the last one?
Lady B: Miss Neville?
Miranda: Yes, Lady B. (I thrust the Toucan-mangled letter into my reticule)
Lady B: Do you know the Duchess of Cambridge? Prinny’s brother Adolphus married Princess Augusta of Hesse-Cassel. The dear princess has no notion of color and goes in for Excessive Flounces. Not well-dressed at all. And to my knowledge she has never been known as Kate.
<squawk> pert bosoms <squawk>
Miranda: Kate, though a Noble name, doesn’t sound very Hesse-Cassel to me.
Lady B: What about Miss Victoria Beckham?
Miranda: She used to be a Spice Girl, runs a dress designing business and is married to a soccer player.
Lady B: What is soccer? Don’t answer that. The woman is In Trade and Does Not Count. I am not worried.
Miranda: What were you worried about?
Lady B: Nothing. Not a thing. I must go. I have a letter to write.
What’s the most exciting news that will/would appear in your Christmas letter this year?