Monday, 16 January 2012

Jessica Hart goes historical

My first reading

 A big day last Friday: my first foray into the art world, my first attempt at an historical romance, and my first reading. 

I’d been invited to write a short romance based on Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of the infamous Lady Seymour Worsley as part of artist Hayley Lock’s exhibition, (Now That Would Be) Telling.  The project has centred around five stately homes in England, whose histories become the starting points for new works by Hayley, and at each house a different writer creates backstories for the characters. 

My story is based in the fictional Caddington Hall. The original Hall was demolished in the 1970s but Hayley’s work creates an alternative history for the house, hosted by Transition Gallery in London’s East End, and that is where we went on Friday to launch the final chapter of the exhibition and for me to read my work for the first time. 

Lady Worsley was reputed to have had 27 lovers, and Hayley has created exquisitely detailed portraits of each of them, their anonymity emphasised by the absence of any faces. My brief was just to write a short romance inspired by Lady Worsley’s portrait (now in Harewood House).  It didn’t have to be true, or accurate, although I did use many of the details of Seymour’s life as background to the story that took shape in my head,   In reality, Lord and Lady Worsley divorced, and while having 27 lovers makes for an interesting story, it certainly doesn’t make a romantic one.

For it to be a romance, I felt her story had to be one in which her marriage ended happily, so I imagined her at cross-purposes with her husband, with neither of them realising that the other had married for love.  Any fans of Georgette Heyer will immediately recognise shades of April Lady and The Convenient Marriage in this imagining, and I have to hold up my hand and admit that my entire knowledge of this period is gleaned from Heyer’s wonderful books. 

Hayley Lock with one of the 27 lovers
I love historical romances, particularly Regencies, and writers like Loretta Chase, Mary Balogh and Annie Gracie are among my absolute favourites, but my romance voice is a contemporary one, I think, whether I like it or not.  What you like to read isn’t always what you’re able to write.  If it were, I’d be writing thrillers and historical romances or romantic suspense.  As it is, the chance to have a stab at writing a historical romance without worrying too much about whether a detail was authentic or not was really liberating, and I had a great time.   What a treat not to have to plot an entire book, too.   The story I wrote deliberately breaks off in the middle of a scene, allowing the reader to imagine their own ending, and to decide whether those 27 lovers were really part of the story or not.  But who knows?  Maybe one of these days, I’ll finish the story myself …

You can see Hayley’s wonderful portraits at Caddington Hall at Transition Gallery  until 5 February 2012. In the meantime, here is my attempt at an historical romance (and no, I won’t be giving up the day job!)

‘Oh, Sarah, you look so …so bold!’ Emma had been horrified when she saw the half-finished portrait of her sister en militaire.  ‘I cannot think Sir Richard will approve.’
Now Sarah wondered if Emma was right.  She stole a glance at her husband under her lashes as he studied the portrait with an impenetrable expression. 
They might have been planned as a study in contrasts.  Sir Richard was dressed for business in a fine wool coat trimmed with silver-gilt braid, his hair neat, the lace at his neck crisply ruffled.   He stood, hands clasped loosely behind his back, a sober, solid figure next to his wife with her jaunty hat and the vivid red riding suit. 
She wished she knew what he was thinking.  He would have preferred her, perhaps, as Diana or some other Classical goddess, but it was too late for that now.  There she stood, ablaze in her scarlet riding suit, hand on hip, looking every inch the lady of fashion.  She had wanted him to see her as dashing, to understand why her admirers clustered around her.
Why other men paid her the attention he gave to government business and his collection of antiquities. 
Mr Reynolds’s studio was full of light.  Sunbeams slanted through the windows and trapped tiny motes of dust in a lazy dance, and the smell of paint was raw in the back of Sarah’s throat.  She had been posing for the artist to make the last tiny alterations when her husband arrived to admire her wedding gift to him, and she had stepped behind the easel to inspect it with him. 
It was a strange feeling to see herself mirrored on the canvas.  Did she really look that assured?  That coolly certain of the world and her place in it?
‘It’s a good likeness,’ Sir Richard commented at last.  ‘You have caught my wife’s poise perfectly, Joshua.  And her mouth …’  He glanced down at Sarah, her face half hidden beneath the brim of that preposterous hat.  ‘… yes, it is very like.’
He had noticed her mouth.  Such a little thing, but her heart had leapt.
Sarah looked away, afraid that he would see the effect he had on her, afraid to let herself hope. 
A long mirror was propped against the wall, and she could see herself reflected twice, once on canvas and once with the plumes on her hat still nodding gently.
Four Sarahs.  Three cool, three poised.  One achingly aware of her husband beside her. 
Two Richards. 
Sometimes it seemed to Sarah that she had indeed two husbands.   There was the cool, dispassionate stranger who sat across the breakfast table from her, precise and keen-eyed, dauntingly courteous.
And then there was the Richard who came to her at night, who reached for her in the darkness between the bed hangings. Whenever Sarah thought about the heat that flared between them there, remembered desire would shiver down her spine.   In the dark, there was nothing but the touch of his hands, the feel of his lips against her skin, the warmth and the weight of him.
In the dark, she didn’t have to school her features to indifference.
In the dark, she didn’t have to pretend that she wasn’t in love with her own husband.
Mama had explained it all.  It was Emma he had wanted, Emma who was so amiable, so beautiful, so dutiful.  Emma who never rode astride or tore her skirts.  Her sister, the pattern card of virtue.  Of course Richard had wanted Emma.
‘But now Emma is married you will do for him just as well,’ Mama had said. ‘Don’t hang upon him, and you will deal very well together.’
Sarah might not have Emma’s beauty and amiability, but she had her pride – and her £70,000 – and she knew the rules of a marriage such as hers.  Richard would go his own way, and she would go hers.  No one would ever guess the mortifying truth.
That she had fallen in love with him the moment she had laid eyes on him. 
Nobody had warned Sarah that it would feel like that. The lurch of the heart, the sickening plunge of the stomach, the dizzy, vertiginous feeling.  Her tongue, usually so quick, had cleaved to the top of her mouth, and she had been dull and stupid and shy with him. 
His offer of marriage had dazzled her with hope, and plunged her into a desperate sense of her own inadequacy.  For her husband was everything Sarah was not.   He was sensible and restrained; she was wilful and headstrong, a madcap, who rode neck-or-nothing and laughed too loud.  A hoyden, her step-father had said, frowning.
Richard was steeped in the classics, and had an organised and mathematical mind; Sarah had always preferred the stables to the schoolroom Her sewing was lumpy, her letters blotched, her figure trim but her face unremarkable.  She was the last wife the serious Sir Richard Worsley should have chosen.  There was nothing to recommend her to him.
Except, of course, her marriage portion.
Sarah never forgot that.  She refused to hang on his sleeve and embarrass him with unfashionable affection.  Love was for cits, not for the likes of Lady Worsley.  The ton would titter behind their hands if they knew. So she gave herself over to fashion and frivolity and hid her desperate, unlikely passion behind a mask of careless gaiety.
‘See, I am wearing your regimental colours.’ 
She pointed to the dark blue lapels with the silver frogging that looked so smart against the scarlet, using the light, bored voice she had deliberately cultivated, the one that disguised the flutter in her entrails, the buzzing beneath her skin whenever her husband was near.  ‘These military riding suits are all the rage.’
Sir Richard, who had seen the bill for the outfit, merely nodded.
Her dowry might have been signed over for his use, but Sarah, it seemed, had no intention of staying meekly at Appuldurcombe while he went about his business in Town.  She was determined to take the ton by storm. 
She had plunged into the giddy social whirl with such enthusiasm that Richard hadn’t had the heart to check her.  The bills from her milliner and mantua maker were staggering, but when he had raised his brows at a hundred guineas for a pair of diamond encrusted shoes, Sarah had been quick to remind him while he might hold the purse strings, it was she who had provided the fortune he dispersed on her account. 
Sir Richard liked being reminded of his dependence no more than the next man. 
It was still a constant source of amazement to him to find himself in possession of such a wife.  He had meant to marry someone demure, a sensible, intelligent woman who would provide him with an heir to Appuldorcombe and share his interests. 
Instead … 
Sir Richard glanced down at his wife, remembering the first time he had seen her. She had been just a girl, wild and lamentably wilful, and no beauty, but so vivid a personality that every other woman paled into insignificance beside her.  She had burst into the drawing room, swinging her hat, her hair tumbled, her face flushed, and when she smiled, the charge in the air took his breath away.
Sarah.  Marrying her had been madness.  She was not at all demure. She knew nothing of the Classics and while her tongue was sharp and she was quick at cards, she reserved her undoubted intelligence for gossip and her energy for dancing and riding and flirting with her coterie of admirers.   
‘George Bisset suggested the riding crop,’ she was saying, using the crop in her hand to point to the one in the painting.  ‘Was it not clever of him?  He said it would show my skill as an equestrienne.’
His neighbour was the most assiduous of her court.  Wherever Sarah went, there was Bisset to bow over her hand and press his lips to her wrist, to flatter and flirt in a way Richard had never been able to do.
Sarah’s smile was brittle, and it pierced Richard with regret.  It was always like that now, the smile of a fashionable woman, not of the vital girl who had captured his reluctant heart. 
The moment the settlements had been agreed, Sarah had changed.  She had made it very plain that a marriage of convenience suited her perfectly. ‘No one expects me to live in your pocket,’ she had said gaily.
Richard should have been pleased.  It was the practical arrangement he had planned when he had first contemplated matrimony.  He should have been delighted that she had reformed her hoydenish ways, that she fit so well into the ton.  She was to be found at every rout, every assembly, every ball.  She was cool and polished and everything a wife should be.
But dammit, he missed the wilful passionate  girl he had married.   Sir Richard longed to find her again, but didn’t know how to reach her now.
His eyes lingered on the portrait.  Sarah was still there, beneath that coolly confident exterior, he was sure of it.  Clever the way Reynolds had suggested the way she brimmed with suppressed energy, as if all her warmth and vitality had been forced under control and might pop the buttons on her tight waistcoat any minute.
In the picture, beside him, she was modestly covered from the tip of her satin clad feet to the expensive kid gloves, and there was a foam of lace at her throat, and looking at the portrait, Richard felt a thrill of possession.   Only he knew how warm and soft she was beneath that snugly fitting jacket.  He knew how sensitive was the skin behind her knee, the way she shivered when he pressed his mouth to the curve of her shoulder.
Glancing at her now, he saw that Sarah was talking to Joshua Reynolds, her expression eager and alert, the way it had been when he first met her, and he clasped his hands tighter together behind his back for fear they would reach for her of their own accord.  He wanted to pull her back to him, to smile at him that way again. 
He wanted to take her home in the carriage, to unbutton her gloves and peel them  from   her

© Jessica Hart 2011


  1. Oh I don't know about not giving up the day job I would totally read on! It is a happy ending, isn't it? I love those Heyer's too, all that misunderstanding and pretence.

  2. The ending is whatever you want it to be ... but if in doubt, I always opt for a happy one!

    Heyer is the ultimate comfort reading, I think. I've no idea how historically authentic she is, but she creates such a convincing world, authenticity doesn't matter.

  3. Ohhh delicious. Would love to read on and get to a HEA. Caroline x

  4. It's fantastic :). Thanks for posting it! And congratulations on your first reading. Trying to do that would have terrified me.

  5. Thanks Caroline and Lacey! Standing up and reading was fine - I'm a show off at heart - but it was odd reading out a couple of excerpts. It was so long since I'd written them, that it felt like someone else's story.

  6. Enjoyed your reading at the gallery. It was strange to hear, spoken out loud in front of a crowd, the intimate details that are usually confined to to privacy of one's headspace when reading alone from the page. And congratulations on your first historical romance and reading - sounds like the subject could lead to all sorts of things...