Friday, January 29, 2010

Guest Blogger Talia Weisberg on Belva Lockwood: Unlocking Doors for Women

Scandalous Women is pleased to welcome Guest Blogger Talia Weisberg. Talia is a self-described radical feminist. She won the 2009 Regional National History Day competition with the entry Belva Lockwood: Unlocking Doors for Women, and calls Lockwood her role model. She also created an organization, Bleep!, whose mission is to eradicate the usage of cursing among kids and teens today (

When one hears First-Wave Feminism or suffrage movement, one normally thinks of women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. If you know more about the women’s rights movement, you might think of women like Alice Paul, and Carrie Chapman Catt. These are all women who made enormous contributions to the women’s rights movement, and their accomplishments should never be downplayed. However, there is another key player of the suffrage movement that has fallen into obscurity: Belva Lockwood.

Belva Lockwood was born on October 24, 1830 to a traditional family in upstate New York. She was a precocious child, reading the whole Bible by age ten. Her father never appreciated her brilliance, though; he told her that “girls should get married, only boys go to college.” Even though Lockwood wanted to pursue a higher education, he wouldn’t allow her to. Because her family needed extra income, she began teaching at age fourteen. When she discovered that her salary was less than half of her male colleagues’, she was furious and complained to the school board. They told her that the men had families to support, and needed a higher salary. Fuming, she confided in her minister’s wife, who told her, “I can’t help you; you cannot help yourself, for it is the way of the world.” This comment sparked Lockwood’s desire to combat inequality of the sexes. However, with lack of funds or education, she put her dreams on hold, getting married and giving birth instead. After her husband died in a workplace accident just a few years later, she felt hopeless. After teaching in a poorly-paid job for several months, she decided to take her singleness as an opportunity to deviate from the traditional woman’s life, and enrolled in a newly-coeducational college.

After graduating, Lockwood resumed her teaching career, radicalizing the curriculums of several girls’ schools to include calisthenics and public speaking courses, among other typically male classes. Bored, she moved to Washington, D.C., seeing that everything that changed the country happened there. While in D.C., she found out that women in the federal workforce received a lower salary than their male counterparts. Horrified at this blatant discrimination, she drafted a bill that forbade this, in addition to outlawing sex discrimination. While her bill was defeated, a similar bill was passed. Her work bore fruit; the percent of women employed by the federal government with a salary over nine hundred dollars jumped from 4% to 20% in the 1870s.

After her work with the bill was done, she wanted to enroll in law school, but was rejected by all of the universities she applied to on account of her sex. In response to her rejections, the government established the coeducational National University Law School. Fourteen other women enrolled with Lockwood; only one graduated with her. Despite the fact that they completed all necessary courses, they were denied their diplomas. After months of unsuccessfully fighting for it, she took things into her own hands and wrote to President Grant, who was also the head of National University Law School, requesting her diploma. She got it within days, and was admitted to the Washington, D.C. bar soon afterward.

Lockwood faced even more obstacles after she became a lawyer, as women were unable to speak in the Court of Claims. Already familiar with the law-making process, she drafted another bill allowing qualified women to speak in front of the United States Supreme Court. It was passed, and she was admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court. She first spoke in front of the Supreme Court when she lost a case that went to appeal; due to D.C.’s status in law, the Supreme Court heard it, and she defended her case.

In addition to Lockwood’s work in the legal field, she also ran for president. In 1884, Lockwood was nominated (originally jokingly) by the Equal Rights Party. Many other major feminists condemned her campaign, feeling that she was making a mockery of the suffrage movement. Men also disapproved of her presidential bid, even making Mother Hubbard Campaigns, where they would dress up like Lockwood and make nonsensical speeches to mock her. Despite the lack of support, she campaigned in earnest, going on a lecture series across the East Coast and Midwest, her running partner Marietta Snow on the West Coast. Nonetheless, only 4,711 votes were accredited to her, although she felt that many votes cast in her name were thrown out or given to other candidates. She ran again in 1888, but this campaign was criticized even more; she only officially received one vote.

After her unsuccessful presidential runs, she continued her law practice. Lockwood had an extremely lucrative career, making $3,500 a year when 80% of families lived off of $500 or less. She handled her biggest case in 1905, when she represented the Eastern Cherokees in a lawsuit against the government to compensate the Eastern and Emigrant Cherokees for the land expropriated from them during the Trail of Tears era. She won, awarding the Cherokees $4.5 million, the largest case ever won against the federal government at the time. The government’s appeal was in front of the United States Supreme Court, and when Lockwood spoke, it was the second time she argued in front of the Supreme Court.

Sadly, this was the last major accomplishment in this scandalous woman’s life. She died on May 19, 1917, in the middle of serious attempts to gain the right to vote. While Lockwood may have died without ever being able to vote, her actions were indispensable to the future of the suffrage and women’s rights movement. As the first woman to speak in front of the Supreme Court and the first successful female lawyer, she opened doors for women to enter the law field. Women currently make up 47.5% of law students and 33% of all practicing lawyers; such figures would be impossible without Lockwood’s contribution to herstory. Lockwood’s presidential bids also allowed women to aspire to the highest levels of government. Hundreds of women have run for president, and there have even been a few real contenders, like Hillary Clinton. Lockwood also opened doors for women in politics in general; without Lockwood’s influence, the thousands of women who hold office would never have been able to achieve success. Despite the fact that Belva Lockwood is a woman who has fallen into obscurity, she has hugely impacted the world as we know it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Book Alert: Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women's Right's Movement

Anne Zaccardelli, Library and Online Sales Assistant, at the Oxford University Press alerted me to the paperback release of this book.

In the quiet town of Seneca Falls, New York, over the course of two days in July, 1848, a small group of women and men, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, held a convention that would launch the women's rights movement and change the course of history. In Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women's Rights Movement, Sally McMillen reveals, for the first time, the full significance of that revolutionary convention and the enormous changes it produced. The book covers 50 years of women's activism, from 1840 to 1890, focusing on four extraordinary figures--Mott, Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony. McMillen tells the stories of their lives, how they came to take up the cause of women's rights, the astonishing advances they made during their lifetimes, and the far-reaching effects of the work they did. At the convention they asserted full equality with men, argued for greater legal rights, greater professional and education opportunities, and the right to vote--ideas considered wildly radical at the time. Indeed, looking back at the convention two years later, Anthony called it the grandest and greatest reform of all time.

There is also an excellent interview with Professor McMillen at the publisher's web-site:  I haven't read this book myself, but it sounds like an amazing history of the movement that should be in every woman's library.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Scandalous Book Review: Lessons in French by Laura Kinsale

As you know, I don't really review historical romances on this blog, but I couldn't resist when Sourcebooks gave me the chance to review Laura Kinsale's first romance in 5 years. I was a huge Laura Kinsale fan back in the day when I devoured historical romance like Twizzlers.

From the back cover:

Trevelyn and Callie are childhood sweethearts with a taste for adventure. Until the fateful day her father discovers them embracing in the carriage and in a furious frenzy drives Trevelyn away in disgrace. Nine long, lonely years later, Trevelyn returns. Callie is shocked to discover that he can still make her blood race and fill her life with mischief, excitement and scandal. He would give her the world, but he can't give her the one thing she wants more than anything - himself. For Trevelyn, Callie is a spark of light in a world of darkness and deceit.  Before he can bear to say his last good-byes, he's determined to sweep her into one last, fateful adventure, just for the two of them.

Ah, a second chance at love story, I'm a sucker for those. Set during the 1820's, Lessons in French is a heart-warming love story that had a little too much going on for this reader. Lady Callista Taillefaire (Callie) is now 27, and has been jilted three times which is quite scandalous for the time. To loose a fiance is one thing, to loose three is carelessness to paraphrase Oscar Wilde. She's made a life for herself, raising cattle, particularly her prize-winning bull, Hubert. When Trevelyn returns having remade his family's fortune(and how he has done that is one of the more interesting aspects of the story), she can't help but be drawn to him again. The course of true love never runs smooth and this one is no exception. No sooner is the flame of love rekindled than Trevelyn gets into a spot of trouble and is forced to flee.

Readers who know Kinsale from her heart-wrenching earlier tales might find this book a huge departure. It's a lot lighter in tone then Shadowheart. For me this book was very reminiscent of Georgette Heyer, and distantly related to Jane Austen. You know a book that is set in a small village, filled with quirky secondary characters. In Lessons in French that includes Trevelyan's valet Jock, Callie's sister Hermey, Barton and several others. While I enjoyed reading about Trevelyn’s experiences in the Napoleonic wars with another of Callie’s former suitors, Major Sturgeon, there were times when I felt that all the sub-plots were getting in the way of the main romance. I found myself yelling 'just get on with it,' quite a few times while reading. There were also times when I put the book down because it didn't hold my interest.

The book is much longer than the average historical romance at over four hundred pages, and  I felt that the story dragged a bit, particulary the scenes when Callie and Trevelyn were dealing with her runaway bull Hubert. Although Trevelyn and Callie have many witty exchanges, sometimes the humor felt forced, as if the author were trying too hard to be funny. However, I enjoyed Callie's relationship with her sister Hermione, as well as Trevelyn's with his mother. It's rare to have a hero whose family are French exiles from the revolution, nor a hero who starts out fighting for Napoleon. Callie is one of the more delightful heroines that I've read in a long time. Despite the fact that she's been jilted three times, she's not cynical or jaded. She has a sense of humor about the whole situation. I liked the fact that Trevelyn had real reasons for keeping Callie at a distance, although he longs to reignite what had just been a spark nine years ago. But the book, at least for me,  was lacking a little bit in the sexual tension department between the hero and heroine. But I have to say that my favorite character in the whole book was Hubert. Yes, my heart was won by a bull, a very charismatic bull by the way.

Despite my few quibbles, Lessons in Love is well worth the read particularly if you are a reader who enjoys a meatier romance than is usually found on bookshelves.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Scandalous Book Review: Louisa May Alcott, The Woman Behind Little Women

I recently watched the American Master's program on Louisa May Alcott.  More a docurama, than a documentary Broadway actors Elizabeth Marvel and Daniel Gerroll played Louisa and Bronson respectively, recreating key moments in Alcott's life, using extracts from her journals and letters.  Afterwards, I was determined to learn more about this writer that I had only really known through Little Women. The program mentioned Harriet Reisen's new biography Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women. I immediately ran to the library to take out a copy.  After reading the book, I made wonder why Alcott is not taught in high school American Literature classes.  She belongs up there with other 19th century luminaries like Hawthorne, Melville and Henry James. While other popular 19th century authors are no longer read (Gertrude Atherton, Sarah Orne Jewett), LittleWomen has become a classic of American Literature and not just of YA fiction.

Harriet Reisen's book is a vivid, energetic account of the life of Louisa May Alcott. What struck me most about this book was not just Louisa's creative process (Louisa would write feverishly for weeks and then be completely spent) but also the difficulties that the Alcott family went through before Louisa began writing for a living. Most people know that the March family is based on the Alcott's but while the March's lived in genteel poverty, the Alcott's were dirt poor. Often they had nothing to eat but an apple and a piece of bread for days on end. Bronson Alcott, while a gifted teacher, was not a very good provider.  His more liberal attitudes towards teaching children didn't go over very well and when he enrolled a young African-American girl in his school that was the end of his teaching career. The family moved constantly, by the time Louisa was in her teens they'd moved something like 30 times, from Philadelphia to Boston to Concord and back again while her father purused one self-indulgent utopian scheme after another, including moving to a ramshackle farm to live iwhat was hoped would be n an idyllic community like Brook Farm but instead turned into a shambles.

I had no idea until I read this book or saw the documentary that Louisa had been a nurse during the Civil War or that it had wrecked her health which led her to the frequent recourse of opiates in search of relief from migraines, insomnia, and what might possibly have been lupus. She also seems to have suffered from severe depressions. Reisen makes much of this fact, suggesting that Louisa might have been bi-polar. The description of the dynamic between Bronson and his long suffering wife Abigail May was particularly riveting. Abigail had come from a well-to-do family while Bronson was completely self-educated. Both were not spring chickens when they got married either, Abigail was pushing 30.  Although they shared a birthday, Louisa and her father seemed to have had a particularly charged relationship until  Louisa was an adult and essentially supporting the entire family on her earnings as a writer. Louisa was headstrong and stubborn, but from the excerpts from her letters, she wasn't above playing the martyr when it came to her family. I also found it fascinating that Louisa was a jogger, she would go for runs to clear her head in the mornings.

Alcott would become the equivalent of a multimillionaire in her lifetime based on the astounding sales of her books, leaving authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and Emerson in the dust. By the time she died, she was living in a huge house in Boston with 10 servants. I also had no idea how prolific Louisa May Alcott was as a writer, that she secretly authored thrillers that she loved to write much more than her juvenile fiction. It was interesting to see that Louisa started writing for young adults basically to make money, because juvenile fiction was a cash cow at the time. Louisa much preferred the few novels that she wrote for adults although they weren't as well reviewed. The poverty that she experienced as a child had a profound effect on her, Louisa was determined that the rest of her life was going to be different.

The book is a vivid portrayal of Boston in the 19th century. When I studied American literature in high school, we read Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, but we never really delved into Transcendentalism, or the Utopian communities that were popular in the early part of the 19th century, including The Shakers. Boston in the early part of the 19th century was really the heart of literary life in America at that time, the publishing industry was centered there not in New York. Reisen depicts Alcott's love of acting (at one point she dithered between wanting to be a writer or an actress) and amateur theatricals.

One of the ironies of Alcott's life was that she chose to be a spinister because she wanted to be free, yet she was never really free in her life. Not only were her parents dependent upon her, but at times she also supported her older sister Anna and her family as well as her younger sister May. Even her first trip to Europe was as a companion to a wealthy young woman and her brother. Some of the most poignant parts of the biography are the two weeks that Louisa was able to spend in Paris with a much younger Polish man who she partly based Laurie on. Whether or not it was an actual love affair is open to interpretation, but it's nice to think that even if it was platonic that she had that brief moment in time.

If there is a weakness in this book, it's the lack of photographs. Reisen quite often will describe photographs or paintings that were made of Louisa which I longed to refer to while reading the book. She also spends way too much time speculating on whether or not Bronson Alcott was mentally ill or not. If anything both parents seemed to have suffered from severe depression at times, which is understandable given their poverty. The person I felt sorriest for in a way was Louisa's mother Abby who had hitched her wagon to a man who was ineffectual at best, who never seemed to lift a finger when his children were starving while she begged for funds from more well-heeled relatives. At one point, Louisa's mother was working in Boston as an early social worker. Abby seemed doomed to be disappointed by life. Reisen has great sympathy for all the Alcott's but she's not afraid to show the reader their flaws. Some readers might not like her summary dismissal of Lizzie Alcott, who Lousia so movingly portrayed as Beth in Little Women. This is definitely a warts and all portrait.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested Louisa May Alcott, or who is interested in what it was like to be a woman in early Victorian America. After reading this book, I felt as if Louisa was someone that I could be friends with. I definitely plan on seeking out her thrillers. If it's available on Netflix, I would also recommend watching the PBS American Master's program as a companion piece to the biography.

More information about the book and the film:

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Winner of Scoundrel's Kiss is

The Winner of Carrie Lofty's new release Scoundrel's Kiss is


I will be emailing you shortly to get your address. Congratulations to the winner and to everyone that entered.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Code Name Cynthia: The Life of Elizabeth Thorpe Pack

Betty Pack was blond, beautiful and a spy. Daring and courageous, she wasn’t afraid to her use her beauty as well as her brains in her quest for information that would help the British and the Americans in their fight against Hitler during WWII. She had the uncanny ability to target the right men in power, and then she seduced them. Recruited in 1938, she was active as a spy until 1944 when her cover was compromised. Betty’s contributions have been downplayed by some in the intelligence community because of the method in which she obtained it. They claim that others were able to pass on the same information. But Betty was able again and again to acquire information that her handlers considered to be of great value.

Born on November 22, 1910 in Minneapolis, as Amy Elizabeth Thorpe, her family called her Betty. Her father was an officer in the United States Marines, by the time Betty was 9 years old she was well traveled, having lived in Cuba, Rhode Island, Florida as well as Hawaii. Highly intelligent, Betty was able to absorb ideas and languages quickly, although she grew bored easily. After Betty’s father retired from the Marines and an extended trip to Europe, the family moved to Washington, where he began to practice maritime law. Betty longed to be back in Europe. A loner by nature, Betty didn’t invite close friendships with other girls, and her experiences marked her as different from the other kids at her school. She also began to rebel, flouting the rules. She was expelled from one school for setting a bad example. A little book called Fioretta that she had written when she was 11, about a blind girl who sang on the streets of Naples, had come to the attention of the Italian embassy. The ambassador and his staff soon adopted her as a pet. Commander Alberto Lais, a 40ish naval attaché, was also charmed by her. While Betty was at boarding school, they used to meet for tea, which caused quite the stir amongst her classmates.

Although both her parents were college graduates, for some reason they didn’t encourage Betty to go to college. Instead, she made her debut in Washington society when she was 19. She had grown tall, and willowy, with amber blond hair and flashing green eyes. Soon Betty was turning heads, male ones anyway. Her secret weapon was her cool demeanor, which made it seem as if she were above it all. But underneath her seeming coolness, she craved excitement.. She soon met her future husband Arthur Pack, who was 38, twice her age, and an under-secretary at the British embassy. With the confidence of a young girl, she seduced him. It wasn’t hard. Sexually precocious, she had already lost her virginity at 14. After only a few weeks, he proposed. When they were married on April 29, 1930, Betty was 4 months pregnant. Arthur convinced her that a baby born 5 months after the wedding would ruin his career. The couple went on a lengthy honeymoon which allowed Betty to give birth abroad. When their son Anthony was born on October 2, 1930, he was immediately packed off to foster parents. Betty wouldn’t see her son again for several years.

They were ill-suited from the start. Besides the age difference, they were temperamentally different. While Betty was passionate and vivacious, Arthur was emotionally unavailable. On the surface, Betty was the perfect diplomat’s wife. She worked to promote Arthur’s career, entertained, stretched his salary as far as it would go, and picked up languages easily. But after awhile, Betty grew bored. Looking for excitement, she began to cheat on Arthur. Not even the birth of a daughter Denise in 1934 helped their eroding marriage. When Arthur was transferred to Madrid, Betty took her first tentative steps in the spy game. Not long after their arrival, Spain was torn apart by Civil War. Sympathetic to Franco, Betty helped smuggle 5 Nationalist rebels to safety, transported Red Cross supplies to Franco’s forces, and coordinated the evacuation of the British Embassy staff from Northern Spain. She also kept her ear open to pick up tidbits of information that might be useful to the British. Aided by one of her lovers, Betty tried to find out information about another former lover who was being held by the Loyalists. Using her feminine wiles, she managed to get 17 prisoners released from the Loyalist prison in Valencia including her lover. However, she was denounced to her Nationalist friends as a Loyalist spy, apparently by a jealous woman. This would not be the first time that a jealous woman ended Betty's time as a spy.

In 1937, Arthur was transferred to the British embassy in Poland. Soon after they arrived, Arthur suffered a stroke. While he recovered at a rehab facility on the Isle of Wight, Betty began an affair with a young Polish diplomat who spilled information about Germany’s interest in the Sudetenland. Betty passed the information on to an SIS contact at the British embassy. Soon she was recruited as an agent who encouraged her relationship with her lover. “Our meetings were very fruitful, and I let him make love to me as often as he wanted, since this guaranteed the smooth flow of political information that I needed,’ she later wrote in her memoirs.

Betty was in a unique position to be useful. She was charming and vivacious, intelligent and made friends easily, especially with men. On the minus side, she could sometimes be indiscreet and had a tendency to fall for her targets. Still she was incredibly well connected and not just in the diplomatic community, but also amongst the highest echelon of Washington society. It was unspoken between Betty and her handlers that her information might come from pillow talk. Through her relationship with the young Polish diplomat, she’d met a number of high ranking Poles. Soon Betty met her next target at a dinner party. His name was Michel Lubienski and he ran the office for foreign minister Josef Beck. Smitten, he sent pink roses to her the next morning. Through him, Betty learned that Polish experts were working on decoding Germany’s Enigma enciphering machine. While traveling with Lubienski in Prague, she also obtained conclusive proof about Hitler’s intentions to dismantle Czechoslovakia. Her idyll in Poland ended when Lubienski’s wife found out about his affair and complained to Beck who took it up with the British ambassador. Despite the information she'd been able to obtain, she was now a liability and she was asked to leave Poland.

Arthur and Betty tried to get their marriage back on track. Arthur was appointed back to the Embassy in Chile, but Betty was eager to get back into action. When World War II was declared, she offered her services to the SIS. She wrote reports about which prominent Chileans were Nazi sympathizers which were sent to London. By this time her marriage to Arthur had dissolved into friendship. Despite her affairs, she had been a loyal wife when it came to his career. But now she had a mission, the fight against Hitler. She soon left Arthur and her daughter and sailed to New York where she went to work for the British Security Coordination (BSC). She was given the code name ‘Cynthia’ and sent to Washington, DC with the cover of a journalist. Her first major assignment was to obtain the Italian naval ciphers. Lucky for Betty, her old friend Alberto Lais was again the naval attaché at the Italian embassy. Betty seduced him, and used his affection for her and the United States to obtain the ciphers. She told him that it would help not only America but Italy as well. Lais told her to contact the cipher clerk directly. With a little bit of bribery, the cipher clerk gave the ciphers to be photographed and then returned to the Embassy.

Her next assignment involved the Vichy French government. Once again posing as a journalist, Betty made the acquaintance of Charles Brousse, the 49 year old press attaché. Brousse was married to an American, that didn’t prevent him from falling hard for Betty, who at the age of 32 was at the height of her beauty. Initially, Betty obtained her information the usual way, through pillow talk, but soon she felt that she could get Brousse to turn on the Vichy government. She told him that she was working for the Americans, not the British. Brousse was also vehemently Anti-Nazi. Soon her lover was eagerly providing his mistress embassy cables, letters, and files. Betty moved out of her house in Georgetown and into the Wardham Hotel where Brousse and his wife lived to make it easier for them to meet and to evade FBI surveillance.

The British and the Americans wanted more, the Vichy French naval ciphers. This time it would be more complicated. The ciphers were in several volumes and locked in a safe. Getting the ciphers this time would involve old-fashioned burglary. Betty and Brousse cooked up a plan to use his office for his affair, deluding the guard as to their actual reason for being at the Embassy late at night. While Betty and Brousse drugged both the guard and his dog using pentobarbital, the safe-cracker hired for the occasion got the safe open but there was not enough time to photograph the information and get the ciphers back in time. A second attempt was bungled when Betty couldn’t get the safe open, even with the combination. A third and final attempt was more successful, although it involved Betty and Brousse hastily undressing when Betty sensed that the guard was on his way. Catching them in flagrante, the watchman hastily apologized and went back down to the basement. The Vichy ciphers were photographed and returned with none the wiser. The information contained in the ciphers was used to help the Allies when they landed in French North Africa in November of 1942.

After the war, Betty was asked if she was ashamed of the way that she had obtained her information. She replied, “Not in the least, my superiors told me that the results of my work saved thousands of British and American lives. It involved me in situations from which ‘respectable’ women draw back, but mine was total commitment. Wars are not won by respectable methods.’

Nothing in the rest of Betty’s life could compare to the excitement and drama of her life during the war. Worried about his health and depressed, Arthur Pack committed suicide after the war. Brousse and his wife divorced, and he and Betty married. He bought her the Chateau Castellnou where they lived until Betty’s death in 1963 from throat cancer. Not the most maternal woman, her relationships with her children were strained. Her son, Anthony Pack, died in 1951 while fighting in Korea just as they were finally developing some kind of relationship. Charles died 10 years after Betty in a fire caused when he fell asleep with his electric blanket on.


Mary S. Lovell – Cast No Shadow: The Life of the American Spy Who Changed the Course of World War II

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Scandalous Interview and Giveaway with Author Carrie Lofty

Scandalous Women is pleased to welcome historical romance author Carrie Lofty to the blog. Carrie is the author of Scoundrel's Kiss which is released today. You can read my review of the book here.

Q: Welcome Carrie to Scandalous Women! Tell us about a little about yourself and how you got started writing?

I've been writing since I could string words into half-baked sentences. I started reading romance when I was 13, long about the time I became seriously interested in the history of the Old West. Writing historical romance was a perfect fit! But I floundered for years and years. I didn't have it in me to take my ambitions seriously.

Then my husband went to graduate school, a degree program that sent him to Virginia for a summer internship. I stayed behind in Wisconsin with our two daughters. I realized that if I wanted to get back out in the world and have my place in the sun, I needed to become dedicated. I finished my first manuscript that summer, then sold the following year.

Now I live in Wisconsin with our two daughters, ages 6 and 7, and write full time. I love that we've been able to fashion our life to provide such a marvelous opportunity for me to really make a go of my career.

Q. I absolutely adored SCOUNDREL’S KISS and thought it was one of the best historical romances I’ve read in awhile. What sparked the story idea?

I knew that the heroine, Ada, would become an opium addict, and I knew that I wanted to feature a warrior monk as the hero. Then it became a matter of finding the medieval country where those two plot elements could be realistically set. The kingdoms of Spain became the perfect choice: ready access to opium, tremendous network of holy orders, and cultural laws in a massive state of flux. That latter became very important because it allowed freedom to pursue some otherwise unconventional plot ideas!

Q. Medieval Spain is an unusual setting for a historical romance which is one of the reasons why I was so overjoyed to read it. Were there any concerns about the setting? Is there anything about this period that constrained your story?

If anything, the setting was far more liberal than I first imagined. Women could participate in long-term affairs without reproach. Monks could get married. Young people could get married without witnesses or a priest—simply by declaring themselves married. Where were the taboos? I had to shuffle a few plot elements to sustain the appropriate about of tension.

As for my concerns about Spain, I knew that I needed to present the setting and the politics in a way that would permit the average reader easy access to the story itself. I simplified much of the very intense political and religious backstabbing of the day, making note of my alterations in the Author's Note. But I was hoping that the big hook—an opium addict and a warrior monk—would garner enough attention so as to drag a few reluctant readers along with me!

Q. Ada is an unusual heroine for a historical romance, not only is she highly educated, but she’s on her own and has an addition problem. What kind of major research did you have to do?

I wanted to know, first of all, what would've been possible for a woman of her time. Educated women did exist, and in Iberian, they ruled kingdoms and powerful families. However, they suffered a great deal of suspicion from lay people. I image that even the most respected female scholar would still be subject to a great deal of superstition and mistrust if she wondered out of court life and into a regular village.

As such, Ada is not only deeply troubled and haunted by the string of poor choices she's made, but she's almost entirely misunderstood. Even scholarly mentors are wary. This perfect storm of circumstances means that she has very few people to turn to, leaving her rather desperate and lost.

Q. Gavriel is a warrior who decides to join a religious order to atone for his past. I was intrigued to learn that rules were a little different for this order than others. How much is it based in fact, and how much is fiction?

Believe me, it would've been a lot easier on me had the Order of Santiago been a regular old religious institution. Gavriel would've been constrained by his vows, tempted, fallen…all without any snags. But the Jacobeans, as they were called, were a special lot. Pope Alexander III gave them special dispensation to wed and keep personal property—no vows of celibacy or poverty for these boys!

This was all in an attempt to recruit more men into the ranks of Christian warriors who would defend the kingdoms from Islamic tribes to the south. As a result, I had to get a little creative with Gavriel's story to demonstrate just why his vows of obedience, non-violence and celibacy were so important.

Q. What was life like for women in Medieval Spain compared to England?

All children, no matter their sex, inherited equal shares from their parents' estates. The only thing that boys received over their female siblings were war armaments. So a family of five would find its estate split into five equal shares. This made the proper courtship of women very important because they were bringing their own property into the marriage.

Sexual rules were also rather lax. A woman could live as an unmarried lover for any length of time with no stains to her reputation. That same woman could eventually marry another man and be considered a perfectly great catch. The key, again, was the conflict with the Moors. The frontier between the Christian and Moorish strongholds was thoroughly and violently contested. Far fewer women lived in those villages. Bachelors didn't want otherwise acceptable women taken off the marriage market because of indiscretions!

The only crimes that were severely punished were adultery and the promotion of adultery—because they destabilized good Christian marriages—and engaging in sexual relations with Moors. Such a crime was punishable by death, even among prostitutes. Rape was also difficult to prove because rules regarding pre-conjugal chastity were considerable less strict.

Q. You are also a member of Unusual Historicals. What was the impetus behind the blog?

I founded UH in November of 2006 after completing my first manuscript, which was recently selected to launch Carina Press, Harlequin's new all-digital venture, in June 2006. That historical romance is set in 1804 Salzburg. I received numerous rejections and wanted to know whether that lack of success was because of my writing or an unadventurous market. (I also wanted to fatten up my TBR pile with new, exotic reads!) Now three years later, it still serves as a great place to network and connect with fans of historicals set outside of the usual times and places!

Q. What/Who do you like to read?

I love lush, beautiful writing, so my favorite romance authors are Candice Procter, Penelope Williamson, Laura Kinsale, and Patricia Gaffney. They all craft such amazing stories, not simply packed with emotion and fascinating characters, but with poetic language to describe every aspect of the hero and heroine's lives. I read those books and knew that's what I wanted to write. Those are the kinds of stories I love to read, so why not give them a try in my own style with my own unique voice?

Q. What is your writing process? Do you plot extensively first or do you tend to “fly in the mist?” Has your process changed over time? Do you write multiple drafts or clean up as you go?

I start with the setting. Always. Then I research and brainstorm in tandem, trying to find my characters. What sort of people could have lived in this time and place? Are they native? Just passing through? There for the long haul? Bored and desperate to get out? Once I have the setting and the characters very firm in my mind, then I start writing and never look back. You could call me a prepared pantser!

I tend to write very messy, very long first drafts. The first pass of revisions is to clean up continuity, cut down on tendency toward verbal diarrhea, and firm up my chosen themes. After a few beta readers have their say, I hit it again for a third and sometimes fourth revision. But I don't like to sit on a draft too long, lest it begins to revolt me!

Q. There was a recent article called "Harm in reading romance novels," Do you think romance novels harm or empower women?

Empower! I've thought about this a great deal because I have two young daughters, and the question as to whether or not I'll let them read my work when they're old enough has been asked of me before. I grew up reading romance novels. They appealed to the romantic in me, naturally, but I always had a clear sense of what was fiction and what was reality. The fiction included the rip-roaring or overly coincidental plots, the too-good-to-be-true sex, the outrageous male bodies. The reality, however, was that love should be respectful, relatively equal, and satisfying to both parties involved. No other genre more clearly explores those possibilities. I like to think that years of reading romance made me better able to spot my prince when he came along!

Q: Romance has garnered the biggest market share in genre fiction, yet it gets the least respect in popular and literary culture. Do you have any thoughts on why that is? Do you find this prejudice changing?

I hope the prejudice is changing. We see articles almost weekly now where people in esteemed places finally admit to reading romance, or they finally step up to defend this worthy genre. I suppose our Puritanical history might have something to do with the prejudice, but art itself has generally been seen to represent suffering. "Pretty" paintings are less worthy than grim, ultra-realistic ones. Fiction with a happy ending is suspect because it's easier to relate to and must, therefore, be easier to write! Ha!

Q. What are you planning to work on next?

As I mentioned, I'll be helping to launch Carina Press in June. In my untitled historical romance, a widowed violin prodigy begins a steamy affair with the renowned composer she's always idolized, only to learn that he stole the symphony he's most famous for. In addition, co-writing with Ann Aguirre under the name Ellen Connor, our "Dark Age Dawning" trilogy of hot-n-dirty apocalyptic paranormal romance will be coming soon from Penguin. Plus I have a few more unusual settings up my sleeve: WWII, Victorian South Africa, medieval Venice…

Thanks Carrie for stopping by.  Since today is the release date for Scoundrel's Kiss, Scandalous Women is giving away a copy of this fabulous book. Note this giveaway is only available to my American and Canadian readers. Giveaway ends on January 12th at 12 p.m. EST.

Here are the rules:

1) Just leave a comment with your email address at the end of this post.
2) If you twitter about the giveaway, you will receive an extra entry.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Scandalous Movie Review: Lady Sings The Blues

Lady Sings The Blues (1972) Paramount Pictures
Directed by Sidney J. Furie
Screenplay: Terence McCloy, Chris Clark & Suzanne de Passe
Based on the book Lady Sings The Blues by Billie Holiday and William Duffy


Diana Ross - Billie Holiday
Billy Dee Williams - Louis McKay
Richard Pryor - Piano Man
James T. Callahan - Reg Hanley (as James Callahan)
Paul Hampton - Harry
Sid Melton - Jerry
Virginia Capers - Mama Holiday
Yvonne Fair - Yvonne
Isabel Sanford - The Madame
Tracee Lyles - The Prostitute
Ned Glass - The Agent
Milton Selzer - The Doctor
Norman Bartold - The Detective #1
Clay Tanner - The Detective #2
Jester Hairston - The Butler

I've been researching the life of Billie Holiday (1915-1959) recently and on a recent trip to the library I discovered they had the DVD of the 1972 biopic starring Diana Ross. I've never seen the film, and while I don't recommend watching movies as research,  I thought it might be interesting to see how they adapted her life story for the screen. The only thing I knew about this film before watching it was that Diana Ross had been nominated for an 1973 Academy Award for Best Actress for the film.
The film is loosely based on Billie's autobiography which she wrote with William Duffy just before her death at the age of 44.  And I do mean the term 'loosely.' About 90% of this film is pure invention. The film opens in 1936 when Billie is thrown in jail for possession of narcotics. She is so strung out that she needs to be put in a straight jacket. The film then flashes back to when she was 14, working in Baltimore as a cleaner in a brothel, where she listens to jazz records all day long while she cleans, singing along to the records.  A traumatic event occurs which sends Billie to New York, where she ends up cleaning in another brothel. She tries to get a job singing but is told she is not pretty enough. So, she goes to work as a prostitute until one day she has enough and finally does get that singing job where she gets paid in tips. Her debut is a little shaky until she sees a handsome man, Louis McKay (Billie Dee Williams) sitting in the audience. Piano Man (Richard Pyror) warns her about McKay but Billie goes out with him anyway. They fall in love but she is offered a job singing on the road with a white band. She goes, hoping that it will help her to get a job singing at a club downtown back in NY. While on the road, she gets hooked on heroin by one of the white musicians. McKay dumps her when he finds out. After her mother dies, Billie resolves to get off the drugs and goes into rehab where she is arrested. After she finally gets out of jail, she resolves to quit singing but McKay knows that it is in her blood. Because of her arrest, her cabaret license is revoked so she has to go out on the road again. Her new agent tells her if she gets good reviews, he'll get her booked into Carnegie Hall. Out on the road, she relapses and Piano Man gets killed by men he owes money too. Again, she resolves to go cold turkey when she gets the hoped for concert in Carnegie Hall. The film ends with her singing at Carnegie Hall, while newspaper clippings are flashed on screen giving details of the rest of her life.
This movie seriously suffers from biopic disease. The screenplay squishes about 21 years of Holiday's life and career and squishes it all down to about 3 years. Billie always claimed that she didn't start using hard drugs until the 1940's and her drug arrest was actually in 1946. She didn't marry Louis McKay, a mafia enforcer until 1952, and while he did try to get her off drugs, he was also abusive as were her other 2 husbands. Far from being the saint she's portrayed in the film, Billie's mother Sadie also worked as a prostitute along side her daughter in Harlem and they were both arrested when Billie was 15.  There's very little sense of the period in this film, apart from the obligatory Klu Klux Klan scene and also a scene where Billie stumbles upon a young black man who has been lynched. The song Strange Fruit, an anti-lynching song is sung shortly afterwards, but there is no historical context as to how she came to sing the song (which was written by Abel Meeropol, a white jewish schoolteacher who later adopted Ethel and Julius Rosenberg's two sons). At no time is it mentioned that most of the clubs in Harlem were for white patrons, and run by the mob. Nor is it mentioned that Billie's father was a jazz musician.
Anyone watching this film would be hard pressed to know why she was so famous and revered. The impression given is that she sang and did drugs and that's it. There's no mention of her appearances at the Apollo Theater, that she sang with Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, that she made a film with Duke Ellington. The Carnegie Hall concert was her comeback, not to show that she had finally made it. It's barely mentioned that she wrote several songs including 'God Bless The Child' or what made her singing so unique. Diana Ross is at her most effective when she is strung out on drugs, less so in her other scenes. She sings the songs beautifully but with none of the grit or heartache that Billie put into her music. Billie Dee Williams as Louis McKay is required to do little more than look handsome, dress well, and be smooth. There are no scenes about what he actually does for a living. Of course the film plays up that a white musician gets her hooked on drugs, while the patient, long suffering black man tries to save her. Billie spent a great deal time around musicians both black and white. Marijuana and heroin were part of the culture. Richard Pryor as Piano Man basically encompasses every musician that she knew. Again, there is no mention of Lester Young, the tenor saxophonist who actually started calling her Lady Day or John Hammond the man who discovered her when she was 18. One has to wonder if it is because they were still alive and objected to being in the movie.
Whatever the reason, anyone wanting to learn about who Billie Holiday was and her contributions to jazz and music in general would do better to read a biography rather than to watch this movie. I particularly recommend STRANGE FRUIT by David Margolick which details how Billie came to sing the song and the impact that it had.