Book Series Binge: Q&A with Tasha Alexander + A Note from The Counterfeit Heiress
By Crime HQApril 17, 2020
Describe the first time you pictured Lady Emily in your head.
Believe it or not, I woke up one morning with a vivid image in my head: a young woman, dressed in Victorian clothing, standing on the cliff path in Imerovigli, a small village in the Greek island Santorini. It was so striking that I wrote down a detailed description the moment I dragged myself out of bed. About a year later, I pulled the document out of the folder I’d shoved it in, and it became the catalyst for my first novel.
Would you like to live in the setting you created for the Lady Emily series?
While I would never object to a townhouse in London’s Park Lane or a magnificent estate in Derbyshire, I’m not confident I could adjust to living with so many servants. First, because I’d feel horrible making them work when I wasn’t helping, and second, because that way of life allows for almost no privacy.
Describe your main character in one sentence.
To quote Emily herself: An appreciation for high fashion does not preclude possession of common sense.
Tasha Alexander’s Note from The Counterfeit Heiress
This novel was inspired by two pieces of research that I had done years ago. The first came when I was writing my second book, A Poisoned Season. While searching for information about the London season, I came across a magnificent cache of photographs, taken at a fancy dress ball given by the Duchess of Devonshire in 1897—six years too late for me at the time. I took copious notes, tracked down a copy of an out-of-print book written on the subject, and filed it all away. Seven years later, as I was mulling over the plot of The Counterfeit Heiress, I decided that the book had to open at a masquerade. I remembered the photographs, and, figuring they would now be useful, pulled out my book, only to realize that the ball, given on 2 July 1897, coincided perfectly with the time my novel was set. Kismet!
I have endeavored to describe the ball as accurately as possible, this made easier by the photographs of so many of the guests. The duchess hired Mr. Lafayette to record the event, and as he explained, “I created a temporary studio in the garden, with a powerful installation of electric light; and though it may sound immodest to say so, the appearance of ‘a gay photographer’ at such a function was considered highly original, and was openly spoken of as a feature of the historic occasion.” These pictures (and the ones taken in his studio—many of the attendees chose to pose formally before or after the ball) would have been lost, had a collection of eighty thousand negatives not been discovered in a London attic in 1968. This astonishing archive of the Lafayette Studio from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was saved, but no one did anything with it until 1988, when they were divided between the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, and subsequently made available to the public.
The ball was a spectacle that London would not soon forget. The elaborate costumes, many fashioned by the top dressmakers of the time, including the House of Worth, were exquisite. Jean Worth commented that the jewels sewn into one “kept several girls busy for almost a month.” The queen herself did not attend, but the Prince and Princess of Wales led the royal party, and were seated to watch a series of processions, in which the guests marched by, divided into courts, as dictated by their costumes. First came the English Court, which included, among many others, Lady Tweedmouth dressed as Queen Elizabeth and Lady Edmonstone as Mary, Queen of Scots. The Austrian Court of Maria Theresa, the Russian Court of Catherine the Great, a group of Orientals (replete with the Queen of Sheba, a snake charmer, and any number of Cleopatras), then Italians, and, finally, those in allegorical costumes followed. The final person to parade by was Lady Wolverton, dressed as Britannia.
I based Emily’s dress for the occasion on that worn by Lady Archibald Campbell. I did not, however, give her the lady’s crescent-moon headdress glowing with electric light. That seemed better suited to Mary Darby’s version of Artemis.
All this wonderful information about the ball did not become necessary until I had first settled on the basic story of the book, and that was inspired by Huguette Clark’s obituary in the New York Times on 24 May 2011. Miss Clark, who died at 104, was the youngest daughter of a copper baron, and heiress to a $300 million fortune. She was a child of her father’s second marriage, and was unusually close to her mother. She collected dolls, was in possession of magnificent works of art, and was married, briefly, in 1928. Her former husband claimed the marriage was never consummated. When she died, she had been living in hospitals for more than twenty years, despite the fact that she had three homes, including a forty-two-room apartment on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, and two estates, one in Connecticut and one in Santa Barbara, California. Each of these residences was fully staffed and in tip-top shape, ready for Miss Clark to arrive at any time, but she had not been in any of them in decades. It was this last detail that grabbed my attention. Three magnificent homes, and Miss Clark chose to live in hospitals. Yet despite that choice, she maintained all of her residences. Why?
Estella Lamar is not Huguette Clark, but I used Miss Clark’s story as a stepping-off place for the character. A few weeks after I had finished writing the first draft of the book, I started reading more about Miss Clark, and learned that Au Nain Bleu, the shop I had chosen from a nineteenth-century Baedeker guide to Paris as Estella’s preferred source for dolls, was also where Miss Clark had bought many of hers. More eerie was the information that, before she started living in hospitals, Miss Clark had retreated into a single room in her New York apartment, lit only by a single candle. Perhaps she was more like Estella than I had imagined.
The details concerning Père-Lachaise and the Paris Catacombs are all factual. Any mistakes are my own.
Finally, I must give credit to Barbara Mertz, writing as Elizabeth Peters, for one bit of The Counterfeit Heiress. Like many of my readers, I am a huge fan of the Amelia Peabody series, and while writing this novel, I decided to include an Amelia reference. The Baroness von Hohensteinbauergrunewald, whose name Emily and Cécile discuss at Le Meurice, is a character in the second Amelia book, The Mummy Case. Cécile, naturally, is aware of the baroness, having read the newspaper coverage of Amelia’s numerous adventures in Egypt. The astute reader will also recognize my reference to the Daily Yell. Sadly, there is no redheaded reporter. If you are not familiar with Amelia’s numerous adventures, you should remedy the situation at once; I promise you will be delighted.
Two days after I wrote that scene, Barbara Mertz passed away. I am quite confident her heart balanced perfectly with the feather of Maat, and that she was sped along to a most pleasant eternal life. Would Osiris stand for anything less? Amelia certainly would not.