Interview with Virginia Henley
Best-selling romance author Virginia Henley talks with Open Letters:
Thank you for joining us today – let’s talk right away about history! Your latest novel, “The Dark Earl” is scrupulously researched – reading it, I sometimes thought you went out of your way even to verify an individual’s height and hair color, if there was any hint of such things in the historical record! What prompts you to go to such efforts, especially when the genre itself isn’t exactly overflowing with scholarship?
History is my passion, and doing the historical research for a book is what makes it bearable for me.
Writing a book is extremely hard work that takes me a whole year. Doing the historical research brings me pleasure. Writing the book usually brings me close to a nervous breakdown. LOL.
I was born in Bolton, Lancashire, England and went to school there until I was twelve. We were taught to relish English history.
When you’re reading some period’s history or scanning the entries in Burke’s Peerage (or do you have it memorized by this point?), what factors start to pull what you’re reading out of the realm of fact and into the realm of fiction? How do you decide which of these figures from the past gets to live in a Virginia Henley novel?
I don’t have it memorized. At my age, my short term memory is non-existent and I have to keep looking things up over and over. When I select a time period and the real historical people I want to write about, I usually start with a map. The names of the people, even minor characters, have to be
actual regional names.
My last series of books that I now think of as Peers Of The Realm, did not start out as a series. It began with The Decadent Duke because I wanted to write a story about Lady Georgina Gordon who became the Duchess of Bedford and got to live at Woburn Abbey. I had read a lot about her mother, Jane Gordon, a political hostess and rival of the infamous Duchess of Devonshire. Jane, Duchess of Gordon, had five daughters and her main occupation in life was matchmaking. Due to her efforts, all her daughters married dukes and earls. Since Regency-set historical romances are readers favorites, I wanted to portray the real scandals of the era, and show that the real people were far more bawdy than most fictional stories.
After I wrote this book, I decided to do more research and write about one of the daughters of the Duke and Duchess of Bedford. I chose Louisa, who married James Hamilton, Duke of Abercorn. Their story became The Irish Duke and I was able to write about Ireland, my mother’s country. These families served the Crown and I was able to incorporate their relationships with the kings and queens who ruled.
The next generation became the fodder for The Dark Earl and the time period had moved on from Regency to Victorian. Real history is the bones on which I hang my story. All I have to do is use my vivid imagination to invent plausible dialogue for these real characters who already seem larger than life to me. The next book will be about the Duke of Abercorn’s heir, Lord James Hamilton, who was a friend and attendant of Queen Victoria’s heir Edward, Prince of Wales. Since this scapegrace (the PofW) was preoccupied with the “Pursuit of Sex” it will make for a bawdy and titillating novel. My working title for this one is Lord Rakehell.
Opting for historical veracity over fancy naturally prompts side-by-side comparison. Do you ever wonder what the second Marquess of Abercorn would think, if he could sit in your library and read your fictionalized account of himself and his family?
Ah, yes, I am given to flights of fancy. I try to make them human and hope they wouldn’t be too offended at the words I put in their mouths, or their sexual proclivities. I like to think that if you read my books, you will learn a bit about history, a bit about sex, and a hell of a lot about human nature.
Obviously, given the amount of research you do, you could easily have written a straightforward historical account of the family (and the Hamiltons) in the 1840s and ’50s, perhaps something along the lines of Stella Tillyard’s Aristocrats. Are you ever tempted to do that, or are novels your home?
No, I’m not tempted to write straightforward historical accounts. Fictional Romance is what brought me to the party and the letters I receive begging me never to change my style are gratifying enough to keep me at it.
Your characters don’t just tear each other’s clothes off, they aren’t particularly foul-mouthed, and none of them seem to be vampires! Any thoughts on the current state of popular romance novels?
I do call a cock a cock. When I was first published 29 years ago, I was considered quite shocking.
These days of course with the popularity of erotica, my stuff is tame by comparison.
I think that there is room for every taste, whether it be vampires, urban fantasy, paranormal, or the euphemistic ‘inspirational’. To each his own!
Any current favorite authors?
Among the living are dear friends Marsha Canham and Bertrice Small. I also love Philippa Gregory and George MacDonald Fraser, both his histories and his Flashman Papers. Among those who’ve crossed the River Styx, my favorites are Thomas B. Costain, Jan Westcott, and Catherine Cookson.