An Earthly Elysium

ringmaster's daughterGuest blog by Grace Elliot, author of The Ringmaster’s Daughter

Have you heard of a pleasure garden?

Pleasure gardens were all the rage in Georgian and Victorian England, and as the name suggests they were open air spaces where people went to be entertained. It’s difficult to think of a modern equivalent and perhaps closest would be an amusement park or major concert venue but neither of these reflect the varied nature of the entertainments that were found in a pleasure garden. In the 18th and 19th centuries, gardens such as Ranelagh and Vauxhall held open air concerts, firework displays and balls, and the visitor would encounter strolling musicians, acrobats and singers, they could shelter in an exotic pavilion, rotunda or a supper box, or else walk along lantern lit paths to see mirror fountains, trompe l’oeil grottos, light shows and statues. Indeed when the 18th century novelist Tobias Smollett visited Ranelagh he described it thus:

“[Ranelagh] made me almost think I was in some enchanted castle or fairy palace.”

The reason for his delight were the nightly illuminations which consisted of ropes of coloured lanterns strung along vast avenues of trees – if you remember that this was in an era when there was no electricity and candles were a luxury, such a display was extravagant to say the least. Indeed, such was the fascination with light that visitors came specifically to see the almost miraculous spectacle of the lanterns lit simultaneously via a special fuse mechanism. (The usual way of lighting lamps was a man and a taper, so this sight was truly breathtaking).

Such was the popularity of pleasure gardens that eminent composers such as Handel premiered work there, including his Royal fireworks music. Indeed, as a publicity stunt a barge sailed along the Thames with musicians playing excerpts on board, to entice visitors along.

Gardens such as Vauxhall were described as ‘an Elysium on earth’, or an earthly paradise away from the noise, smell and bustle of London. For the one shilling entry fee anyone from the common man to a prince could walk through enchanted grottoes and marvel at the wonderous sights with his sweetheart. And hence the reason for my post. What better setting for a series of romances than the backdrop of a pleasure garden?

My latest release, The Ringmaster’s Daughter, features the fictional pleasure gardens at Foxhall. Indeed, the idea came from my fascination with the actual Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. In #1 of the Foxhall series we join our heroine, Henrietta Hart, with her father’s livelihood is in danger. She enters a battle of wills with the new manager, Tobias Wolfson, and as mutual attraction grows between them, they face a stark choice between love and survival…

Excerpt: Chapter 1

So far that morning, Tobias Wolfson, the new manager of Foxhall Pleasure Gardens, had watched an overweight acrobat, an arthritic contortionist and a ballad singer who was so out of tune that she made his teeth ache. Small wonder the gardens were losing money, he reflected, if these were Foxhall’s best entertainments. And given that the next act was late, his mood showed no sign of improving as he stared across the deserted stable yard.

“Perchance Mr Hart does not value his job?” Wolfson said.

At his side, a florid man in a periwig, smiled nervously. “He should be here, I told him myself.”

“Where is he, Mr Uglow? Answer me that!”

Mr Uglow’s shoulders drooped. “Happen Mr Hart has been detained.”

“Hart’s Performing Horses,” Wolfson murmured, making a mental note to strike the act from the list of those retained.

“Perhaps he’s inside.” Uglow’s plump hand gestured towards the large stone barn.

Wolfson studied the two-story building. Evidently the stables and a tack room were on the ground floor, while the upper housed both a hayloft and some cramped accommodation. He nodded toward the loft.

“Mr Hart and his daughter live up there. Anyone else?”

“No. There was a groom, but he was let go.”

“A quick look and if Hart’s not there, it’s his loss.”

With a grunt, Wolfson marched toward the tack room but, as he passed through the open door, he felt a disturbance in the air and — before he could shout a warning — a young woman cannoned into the wall of his chest. She hit with such force, he heard the breath knocked from her lungs as she rebounded and tumbled backwards. By sheer reflex, Wolfson grabbed her upper arms to steady her. Instead of seeming grateful for his help, the girl glared back, her dark eyes fizzing angry as a wasp’s nest poked with a stick.

Raising a brow, he studied this whirlwind. She had an oval-shaped face, her complexion glowed with health and hair, the color of ripe chestnuts, fell in a thick plait down to her bottom. She was dressed in working clothes, an apron covering a plain woolen skirt, a chemise and a shawl. She was, he realized, a young woman rather than a girl – with a curvaceous figure to match. His interest peeked.

“Sir, release me!” She jerked a shoulder.

With a start, Wolfson found he still gripped her surprisingly muscular upper arms. “Apologies, madam.” He let go and couldn’t help inspecting his hands, puzzled by the tingle of static on his palms. Bemused, he looked up to find her staring back, her mouth softly parted in question. Feeling an unwanted tug of attraction, Wolfson scowled.

Composing herself, the woman stood hands on hips, her brow furrowed in challenge. “What are you doing in my yard?”

Bold as a lioness, she held her head high, and something jumped inside Wolfson as he returned her stare. Even standing still, she exuded energy — and the faint smell of lavender and horses. Perhaps it was the vivacity behind those dark eyes — so dark as to be almost black — or that determined expression, but her spirit excited Wolfson and his brow rose further.

“Your yard?” he said, faintly amused.

Mr Uglow coughed politely. “Ah, this is Mr Hart’s daughter, Henrietta — she may know what has detained her father.”

For the first time, the young woman faltered. “You want Pa?”

“Indeed, I would be most grateful,” Wolfson continued, “unless he has more important matters to attend to than keeping his place.”

Miss Hart eyed him suspiciously. “And you are?”

With an ironic smile, Wolfson tipped his tricorn hat. “Mr Wolfson, new manager of the Foxhall Pleasure Gardens.”

Miss Hart hesitated, her gaze flicked to the stout man by his side. “The gossip is true — Mr Uglow isn’t running things anymore?”

Wolfson proceeded smoothly, “Mr Uglow continues as a valuable asset to the gardens, but I am here to ease his workload and provide fresh insight during the renovations.”

“Mr Wolfson and I will be working together.” Uglow’s tight lips suggested he disliked the arrangement.

“Oh, I see,” Her dark eyes widened and deepened to black. “And you wanted Pa because…?”

“To decide the act’s future.”

“Oh.”

Was his imagination or had Miss Hart just trembled? Beside him, Mr Uglow shuffled his feet. With effort, Wolfson marshalled his thoughts back to the task in hand.

“Miss Hart, will your father be honoring us with his presence?”

“Pa’s out. Being fitted for a new costume. Not expected back afore late afternoon.” She held his gaze, but Wolfson’s skin prickled as it did when he was being lied to.

“Is that right?”

Miss Hart licked her lips. “I just said so.”

Wolfson arched a brow at her impertinence but let the disagreement go, for he would get to the bottom of matters in his own time. He folded his arms across his chest, tapping a manicured finger against the opposite sleeve.

“I understand your father has performed at Foxhall for many years.”

“Yes, sir. He started when I was a babe in arms. There was a time when Hart’s Performing Horses were the star attraction,” she added hastily. “Of course the act is still very popular.”

Wolfson inclined his head toward Mr Uglow. “What are the gate receipts like?”

The ruddy-faced man waved his hands in exasperation. “I’m far too busy running the gardens to keep track of every little detail.”

Wolfson hid his irritation behind a genial smile. “But you can find out?”

“I suppose so. There will be ledgers somewhere.”

“Have them sent to my office as a matter of priority. And Miss Hart,” He faced those devastating dark eyes – that he decided were a deep hazel, bordering on brown. “Please explain why last night’s performance was cancelled.”
Her skin, lightly tanned from time spent outdoors, paled slightly. “The lead horse, Stardust, he went lame.”

There it was again, the skin prickling sensation. For some reason Miss Hart was lying, but he nodded as if sympathetic. “I trust he will be fit for tonight.”

“Oh yes, sir.” She smiled, but her lip quivered. Clearly something was troubling her.

“Even so, I would like to speak with Mr Hart urgently.”

“I can pass on a message.”

“Very well. Tell your father that tonight I will be in the audience deciding whether or not to re-commission the act. Nothing I have seen or heard to date inspires confidence. I suggest he gives the performance of his life.”

For the first time, Miss Hart seemed dumb-founded. “Of course, Mr Wolfson, I will tell him.”

“Good,” he sighed. “Next on my list are the giant tortoise and his handler. Lead on, Mr Uglow, lead on.”

Aware of Miss Hart’s eyes burning into his back, he left the stable yard with the niggling impression that Miss Hart was as an uncut diamond amongst coals.

Buy: The Ringmaster’s Daughter

The Ringmaster’s Daughter – synopsis

1770’s London

The ringmaster’s daughter, Henrietta Hart, was born and raised around the stables of Foxhall  Gardens. Now her father is gravely ill, and their livelihood in danger. The Harts’ only hope is to convince Foxhall’s new manager, Mr Wolfson, to let Hetty wield the ringmaster’s whip. Hetty finds herself drawn to the arrogant Wolfson but, despite their mutual attraction, he gives her an ultimatum: entertain as never before – or leave Foxhall.

When the winsome Hetty defies society and performs in breeches, Wolfson’s stony heart is in danger. Loath as he is to admit it, Hetty has a way with horses…and men. Her audacity and determination awaken emotions long since suppressed.

But Hetty’s success in the ring threatens her future when she attracts the eye of the lascivious Lord Fordyce. The duke is determined, by fair means or foul, to possess Hetty as his mistress – and, as Wolfson’s feelings for Henrietta grow, disaster looms.

Buy: The Ringmaster’s Daughter

graceelliotAuthor Bio:

Grace Elliot leads a double life as a veterinarian by day and author of historical romance by night. Grace lives near London and is housekeeping staff to five cats, two teenage sons, one husband and a bearded dragon.
Grace believes that everyone needs romance in their lives as an antidote to the modern world. The Ringmaster’s Daughter is Grace’s fifth novel, and the first in a new series of Georgian romances.

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Buy: The Ringmaster’s Daughter

Review: A Duke of Her Own by Eloisa James

duke of her ownReviewed by Carla F.

If asked to list my 10 favorite romance authors, I doubt that I would put Eloisa James on the list. That doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy her books. It is just that I feel some trepidation before I start reading one because Ms. James writes smart, complex stories with interwoven characters. The love story of a certain couple can (and often does) carry through several books. Her writing style is truly a distinctive one.

One reason for this is the time period that this book (and others) is set. It is the Georgian period where the men (sometimes the hero although not in this book) wear wigs and high-heeled boots. The women wear elaborate hair designs and clothes. The detail is intense. (In real life James is Dr. Mary Bly, a Professor of English, so research is extremely important to her.)

Also the people in her books have habits and customs that can be different from what a reader has come to expect from a romance set during the Regency. The characters remind me of those in Dangerous Liaisons. “The course of true love never runs smooth” is way too a tame phrase for the hero/heroine in one of these. The love lives of all the characters are just downright messy. At times a character’s motives is not only hidden from the reader but often from the character himself/herself.

In A Duke of Her Own, Leopold Dautry, The Duke of Villiers is determined to marry a Duchess. Why? Well it seems that Leo has not one but six illegitimate children. Leo has always supported these children financially, but after almost dying in a duel he decides that he wants to raise the children in his home, and he wants the children to be raised as if they were born of a lawful marriage. He then must find a wife, and he decides that only someone who is the daughter of a Duke would have the necessary pull to get the ton to accept his children.

Duke’s daughters are thin on the ground so there are only two currently available. One is Lisette who everyone thinks is mad and the other is Eleanor who has vowed to only marry a Duke. Eleanor isn’t a snob. She just said that because her true love (and former lover) Gideon, Duke of Astley, was forced into a marriage of convenience, and Eleanor wanted him to know that she would wait for him in case the marriage ended.

Leo and Eleanor are drawn to each other soon after meeting, but of course, Leo has to also check out Lisette as a possible wife and mother, so he heads to her father’s residence. Eleanor’s mother gets wind of this, and she, Eleanor’s sister, and Eleanor also go visit Lisette’s home.

It is fun to read the back-and-forth interplay between Eleanor and Leo as they try to decide who is going to marry whom. This book is recommended for those readers who like flawed characters who are uncertain about love but manage to find it anyway and those who like to read stories of people in tangled relationships. It is also recommended for those who love books set in the Georgian period.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Buy: A Duke of Her Own

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Movie Review: Lost in Austen starring Jemima Rooper and Elliot Cowan

This three hour BBC miniseries is just precious. It’s lighthearted, humorous, and perfect. Pride and Prejudice is revisited and reintroduced. Lost in Austen pays homage to Jane Austen’s original masterpiece while reinventing it. My friend, who is not a Pride and Prejudice fan—blasphemous I know!—loved this film. My other friend, who is a huge fan of Pride and Prejudice, to the point of being a purist, loved it also. Two endorsements right there! Make that three as it has mine also!

It starts with the heroine, a representative for all modern women, reading the classic tale. She has read it so many times, she can say it by heart, practically see herself there at Pemberley running to Darcy—wait hold up!

amandaandelizabeth

Amanda Price thinks she’s going crazy what with Elizabeth Bennet showing up in her bathroom and all. It is just one more sign of impending institutionalization. Really, how could a fictional character appear in her bathroom? The lives of those in Georgian England are made up after all… right?

When a wall opens up in Amanda’s bathroom and Elizabeth affirms it is her house on the other side, Amanda can’t resist stepping through. Like Alice, Amanda has gone through the rabbit hole and is trapped in Wonderland. The door swings shut behind her, but Amanda is filled with only a slight trepidation as she descends into the madness that is the Bennet house right at the beginning of the story.

What follows is a fabulous, wonderful, delicious story of a modern girl trying to make the story happen only to mess it up. Every time Amanda attempts to fix things, it gets worse. Some end up married to the wrong person, new background on characters is revealed, and more. Who could imagine blustering Mrs. Bennett as a ball-buster? One of the things that I loved was how Wickham is redeemed in this version. How? Watch and find out!

I’ve been told that the American version is missing a scene where Amanda is singing. I noticed a jerky transition where it should have occurred. There are also a few minor things left out, so I’ve been told. I wish they hadn’t taken it out, I mean once you’re at three hours, what’s another fifteen or so minutes right? Anyway, it was marvelous. Get it from your library or buy a copy – you’ll love it!

PS: Elliot Cowan, who plays Mr. Darcy, in looks is a cross between Colin Firth and Heath Ledger. Yum! His wet white shirt scene… double yum! Take a look:

lost_in_austen

Rating: 4.5 Stars!

Buy: Lost in Austen

Review: Wicked Company by Ciji Ware

by Cara Lynn, guest reviewer

Wicked Company was originally published in 1992 and has been reissued in October 2010.  Basically it is the story of female dramatists, playwrights, as well as the actors and actresses, the directors and producers, during the years 1761-1771, mostly in London.

The author calls herself a ‘historical novelist.’  In her research she discovered that 98 women wrote plays that were either staged published, or survived in manuscript in Britain between 1660 and 1800. A significant number of these writers were extraordinarily prolific dramatists, with 15 to 20 plays mounted in professional theaters during their lifetimes.

This was a difficult book for me to get through.

First, it is outside my comfort zone, which to be honest was one of the reasons I decided to pick up this book.  Generally I prefer more contemporary settings, but I wanted a break from my usual fare.

Second, there were some difficult scenes (cultic rites involving killing an animal, and using its blood, along with some homosexuality, and at other times strange patriarchal come-ons to the heroine.  The cultic rites I felt were strictly fictional, but maybe not.  When something is so completely researched, one doesn’t really know where reality leaves off and fiction begins.)  I haven’t read enough historical romances to know if what was written was accurate or not.  But let me tell you, I wouldn’t want to live there during those times.  Especially when you take into account the third difficult thing: reading about the multiple affairs, along with gonorrhea and syphilis with remedies (and prophylactics) that are less than effective.  And fourth, scenes taking place in Bedlam and the crude handling of mentally ill (much from syphilis.)

So it wasn’t a fun read.  But I enjoyed the main characters and the overall overview that I got of those times and places.  I might have even liked it more if I was a Londoner and could think of those places with the familiarity that I would then have for them.

Rating: ★★½☆☆  But if you really like historical reads, then you might rate it higher.  Have you read this book?  Did you read it when it first came out?

Buy: Wicked Company

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What’s in a Name? Kittens and Characters

by Grace Elliot, guest blogger and author of A Dead Man’s Debt.

Last Thursday I found a stray kitten playing in the road; the cutest little thing all purrs and passion paws. Being a veterinarian, for safety’s sake, I took her into work but despite notices everywhere no owner has come forward. With a boring weekend in a kennel looming, I decided to ‘foster’ her at home. From previous experience I’ve avoided the trap of giving her a name, since inevitably then she would never leave, so for now she’s affectionately referred to as ‘It.’

So what has a cute kitten to do with a romance blog? Well it set me thinking about how characters get their names.

Set in Georgian England A Dead Man’s Debt is the story of two damaged people, Lord Ranulf Charing and Miss Celeste Armitage. Bizarrely, the naming process started when I saw a road sign to ‘Cadnum’. A light went on in my head. What a great place name, full of gravitas and history, the perfect home for a Marquis… the Marquis of Cadnum (*)

The Marquis of Cadnum’s heir, and our hero, is a man of duty, weighed down by venerable ancestors, whilst denying his own calling as an artist. His given name needed to suggest a restless adventurer and ‘Ranulf’ popped into my mind (after Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the British polar explorer.)

So what about our heroine? Celeste, such an ethereal and aloof name but she is stubborn and rebellious, and needed an appropriate surname. ‘Armitage’ seemed just right, (in the UK ‘Armitage Shanks’ manufacture bathroom porcelain – strong and practical!)

Get the right name and the character talks on the page, becoming permanent…which is why it is foolish to name the kitten. But don’t worry, I’ve dodged the issue, only now It is beginning to sound dangerously like Itsa.…Itsa Cute Kitten. Can’t possibly keep her…too many cats… but, oh, she is sweet….

* Names and titles -the confusing bit explained.

In formal society a Marquis was addressed as, ‘the Marquis of Cadnum’, or ‘the Lord of Cadnum,’ rather than by his family name (in this case, Charing.) The eldest son is called by his family name i.e. Lord Charing.

‘A Dead Man’s Debt’ will be available from Solstice publishing later this fall.

For more details visit Grace’s website at:  www.graceelliot.webs.com

Or her blog at:  http://graceelliot-author.blogspot.com

[Book Blurb.]

‘A Dead Man’s Debt’ by Grace Elliot.

Set in Regency England ‘A Dead Man’s Debt’ is a story of blackmail, duty and an unexpected love.

After publically humiliating a lecherous suitor Miss Celeste Armitage is sent from the Ton in disgrace and resolves never to marry. But when she finds a sketch book of nude studies and discovers the artist is her hostess’ eldest son, Lord Ranulf Charing, she finds herself dangerously attracted to exactly the sort of rogue she has sworn to avoid.

Nothing is as it seems. Lord Ranulf’s life is a façade and he is being blackmailed over his late brother’s debts. But just as the darkly restless Ranulf finally learns to love, the full fury of his nemesis, the vindictive Lady Ursula Black, is unleashed. To protect Celeste he faces a stark choice between duty and true love. However Ranulf has underestimated Celeste’s stubborn resolve to clear his name and in so doing places the woman he loves in mortal danger….