I’d like to welcome Margaret Porter, author of “A Pledge of Better Times”, to the blog today!
**”A Pledge of Better Times” releases today!** My review of the novel was posted here yesterday, so check that out for a synopsis and overview.
1) Auspicium melioris aevior a “pledge of better times” is the Beauclerk family motto as well as the title, and it’s something that I think sets the tone for the whole novel. How did it inspire you as you began your research?
The final title of the book isn’t its original one! In fact, I went through several of them before I fortunately had a brainwave about the Beauclerk motto. But after I decided to use it, my agent recommended something else, and for a while we stuck with that. But none of the alternatives so closely conveyed my characters’ internal and external struggles, and their longing to achieve their better times. During the final stages of writing, I tweaked that theme a bit more—it was always there to some extent, but it definitely evolved over time. I’m really glad that I restored the title that best fits the trajectory of the novel.
2) In the Author’s Note, you mention that family genealogist’s have linked you to the seventeenth century Charles and Diana. What perspective did that give you as you began to uncover and write their story? Did that fact make you approach the book differently?
The family connection to the protagonists is a saga in itself. I was vaguely aware of my Stuart and de Vere DNA. Then, years ago, I happened to meet one of my characters’ direct descendants. Not long after that I wrote a romantic novel (Improper Advances) with an opera singer heroine who was a totally fictional descendant of Charles and Diana—an illegitimate daughter of their grandson, the 3rd Duke of St. Albans, who in real life had liaisons (and bastard children) with singers. In the course of this further research into the Beauclerk family background, my fascination with the 1st Duke and Duchess increased. I became determined to tell their story. As I discovered more and more about their lives, collected portraits of them, confronted and tried to solve the mysteries that plague all of us who write about real people, my sense of connection grew ever stronger. And from time to time I’ve corresponded with their descendant, whose interest in my project I greatly appreciate. I’ve shared some of my research with him and will share a great deal more in future. Apparently I found out some things about his ancestors that he did not know!
3) Research for this book took you to Hampton Court, Windsor, Kensington, The Hague, and Versailles. That’s an incredible itinerary! What did you take from those places that helped shape your story? What “footprints” did the characters leave behind for you?
The ability to conduct on-site research for any novel, and this one especially, is an enormous privilege. And it’s incredibly inspiring. So many times I would enter a room or walk along a corridor knowing that Diana or Charles or Mary or Aubrey had also walked there. In a very real sense I followed in their footsteps. Trying to see with their eyes and listen with their ears and smell with their noses. I attempted to convey this reality through the writing, not solely in descriptions of what the palace or the garden looked like, but the impact that it had upon the character, and his or her emotional response. Many of these famous buildings and gardens were being created during the period of the novel, so I needed to study their stages of development at a particular time. So much of English literature is closely connected to place—how many classic novels use the name of the house as the book title? Also, these places I visited possess portraits of the people I wrote about. I could stand and stare at them and commune with them and let my imagination run. I visited the places where they are buried. That touchy-feely aspect of the craft has always been important to me, a crucial part of my process. I get a tingle in my spine when confronting items that my characters owned and used. Charles’s silver spirits flask is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, so is Queen Mary’s jewel casket, which Diana would have known and probably handled. At Hampton Court I attended an exhibition that included some of Queen Mary’s jewelry and personal items. Quite a thrill!
4) I was surprised that Diana’s father, Lord de Vere, was so willing to overlook the fact that his two youngest daughters were not biologically his. Was that relatively common in the 18th century, whether or not the husband was aware of it? Or were the illegitimate children more often shipped off to a local farmer’s family?
Well, he certainly wasn’t the only nobleman in that situation. In this period most aristocratic marriages were made for dynastic or financial reasons. A married noblewoman’s duty was to provide her husband with an heir—and preferably a spare as well, given the mortality rates for children in the 17th and 18th centuries. After that, she might regard herself as free to take lovers. The latitude she was granted all depended upon the husband. Aubrey knew his wife had a past when he married her, and I doubt that he was surprised by her infidelity after marriage, even though they had no surviving son to inherit the earldom. I’ve found no absolute proof that the younger two daughters were not his children, but several scraps of circumstantial evidence.
5) You discuss the stain of bastardy that hung over Charles’ life and how it plagued him, especially after his father, Charles II, died. I think many assume that the life of royal bastards was one of posh obscurity. That wasn’t the case for Charles II’s bastards. Do you think Charles Beauclerk would have viewed his notoriety as a king’s bastard as a blessing or a curse?
I think if Charles’s mother had been an aristocratic lady, like most of his half-siblings’ mothers, he would have felt differently about being illegitimate. Everyone at court knew Nell Gwyn, and knew her background and history—brought up in a brothel by a drunken mother, selling fruit in the theatre, performing on stage, becoming mistress to various actors before catching the King’s eye. Even Charles’s father seemed to regard him as a special case. Much of the problem was Nell herself. She truly loved the king, so much that she didn’t pester him with demands for money and property the way all those blue-blooded mistresses did. The king was generous to her (though never as generous as he was to his other women). But she was a spendthrift and hadn’t the education or experience to know how to manage her money when she had it. Nell adored her son, and yet his future was hampered by her profession and the debts he inherited from her. This makes his marriage to Diana all the more remarkable—his brothers tended to marry heiresses. On the other hand, his royal blood meant he was closely related to kings and queens, beneficial in terms of advancement in the military and at court. I think it’s safe to say that being a king’s bastard was a double-edged sword!
6) This was the first novel where I encountered Mary of Orange. Queen Mary hangs Diana’s portrait at Hampton Court and the two share a close friendship. Despite their similarities, their respective marriages seem to have been quite different. Mary had no living children and Diana had a dozen. Charles clearly doted on his wife, while William seemed only to go through the motions. How do the relationships these two women have with their husbands illuminate their own characters?
I think the operative word is “coping.” Women of that period were not free agents, even when they were rulers or aristocrats. Mary was raised with the knowledge that her marriage would be a dynastic one, and she was married against her will to a cousin who was a stranger. Her religious faith sustained her throughout her marriage to William, for she was a very devout woman. She was also filled with self-doubt and dread of displeasing her husband. Diana is not only more optimistic and more self-reliant, she’s bolder and more inclined to oppose Charles when she doesn’t agree with him. In childhood her mother regarded her as impertinent, when in fact she is honest almost to a fault—even with herself. She faces difficult situations unflinchingly. Both women must learn how to carry out their responsibilities whenever their husbands are absent. Although Mary hates it, she rises to the occasion when necessary. Diana prefers being in control, she thrives on it. In that, they are very different.
7) As an aspiring novelist myself, I’m always curious about authors’ writing routines. How do you identify the topic for your next book? Do you rely on outlines or do you prefer to go wherever the story takes you? Do you write every day or only when the mood strikes?
Every book is different, as you’ll find out if you haven’t already! When writing historical fiction involving real people and events, after basic research I will develop a timeline for the history as well as a timeline for my plot. Then I work out how they fit together. I research broadly, but in the plotting I only want the historical events in which my characters are directly involved, or which affect them most profoundly. The history needs to serve the story. I create chapter-by-chapter outlines, so I know in advance of writing what needs to happen in any given chapter to move the plot forward or strengthen the conflict. But once I’m actively writing the individual scenes, I go with the flow of my imagination. When there’s more fiction than history in the book, as in my historical romances, I work out the beginning, the middle, and the ending, and create an outline to fill in the gaps. My beginnings rarely change, but sometimes the endings do. I know I’ve got many more ideas and plans for books than I will ever complete. As for writing every day—I do something writing-related every day. It might be research. Or travel. Or just thinking hard about a plot tangle. I really like revision. In order to do that I have to finish writing the book!
8) Can you tell us what you’re working on next?
I’m working on two projects which are in different stages. A contemporary novel that went on the back burner for the past couple of years, is nearly finished. As for the next historical project . . . that one has been in development for a very long time, before I ever began researching or writing A Pledge of Better Times. Back then I intended to write a nonfiction biography of a late 18th century woman who was an actress, a playwright, and a novelist, admired and courted by her fellow actors as well as aristocratic gentlemen. After a long period of research, I recognized that this was especially rich material for a novel. Especially if I combined her fascinating life with the experiences of a fellow actress, to provide contrast and conflict. With my research and the full outline and synopsis completed, I’m ready to write!
And now one just for fun:
9) If you could be a character from your favorite historical novel, who would it be and why?
Oh, that’s a great question, and so hard to answer! Characters in historical novels endure so much agony before achieving their “better times”—and some of them never do. I have a weakness for a happy ending, pretty gowns, and witty men. So I’ll choose a Cinderella-type story featuring a favourite Georgette Heyer heroine: Ancilla Trent, from The Nonesuch. But I nearly chose Penitence Hurd in Diana Norman’s novel The Vizard Mask. I’m not sure I’d want to be her, because she goes through some serious hard times—plague and persecution, and so much more. She is Tough with a capital-T, and a survivor against long odds, and I love her.
Would you like to ask the author a question? Please do so in the comments section!