Book Series Binge: Tasha Alexander on the Lady Emily Series
By Crime HQMay 4, 2020
One day, while I was engrossed in Dorothy L. Sayers’s wonderful Gaudy Night, a sentence leapt off the page at me:
If you are once sure what you do want, you find that everything else goes down before it like grass under a roller—all other interests, your own and other people’s.
I had been saying for as long as I could remember that I wanted to be a writer. Now I realized that if that was truly what I wanted, I had to sit down and write a book. No more excuses. At the time, my son was three-and-a-half years old and had just stopped napping. I had to take advantage of every free moment I had, and in bursts of fifteen minutes, half an hour, whatever time I could steal, I wrote the first draft of And Only to Deceive, the first book in the Lady Emily series.
I knew I wanted to write about an English woman in the late Victorian period and had a strong image of her standing on the top of the cliff path on the Greek Island of Santorini, one of my very favorite places. Once I started asking questions about how she came to be there, the story started to invent itself.
I was determined not to create twenty-first century characters, drop them into bustles and corsets, and call them historical. Fundamentally, we may have much in common with those who lived before us, but sensibilities have changed greatly. A strong-minded young woman in 1890 would not think in precisely the same way one would today. Emily’s search for independence had to make sense in the context of the society in which she was raised. So she rebels, in small ways at first, gradually becoming more steadfast in her convictions, more confident in herself, but she’s vulnerable because she’s not prepared to absolutely renounce her position in society. And, really, I think it’s that sort of compromise for which we all search: how much of our culture, our society do we accept, how much do we reject? Can we live according to our principles without sacrificing anything? It’s very easy to have strong opinions when holding them does not threaten the comfort of our daily life.
The paramount goal for an aristocratic woman in Victorian England was to make the best possible marriage, one that would preserve fortunes and estates while increasing her standing in society. The marriage market was a competitive one. A family might have many eligible daughters, but could only have one eldest son, who, alone among his brothers, stood to gain a significant inheritance. A young lady would feel a great deal of pressure to catch a respectable husband in as few seasons as possible after making her social debut. If two or three years passed and she was not engaged, she would be considered a failure.
Emily, coming from a wealthy, titled family, would have been in an excellent position to make a good match, and although I wanted her to be independent, it would have made no sense, historically speaking, for a girl in her position to avoid marriage. Her parents would never have allowed it. As an unmarried woman, she would be subject to her mother’s rule, a situation, that, given Lady Bromley’s character, would hardly have allowed her to do the things I wanted. But I did not want her to be married. A Victorian gentleman, even an enlightened one, would still have a decidedly Victorian view of marriage. To make her a widow seemed the perfect solution. I would be able to give her a certain degree of freedom without having to sacrifice historical accuracy.
The Counterfeit Heiress is the ninth in the series, but it’s also an excellent place to jump in if you don’t want to start at the beginning. The Counterfeit Heiress was inspired after I read the New York Times obituary of Huguette Clark, who died at 104 in the New York City hospital where she had chosen to live. She had $300 million, an enormous apartment in Manhattan, a Connecticut country retreat, and an oceanside estate in California, yet she chose to live in a hospital room. What makes someone come to such a decision? My character Estella Lamar is not a fictionalized version of Miss Clark, but she, too, is an eccentric heiress who is living life on her own terms. When she goes missing, Emily is the only one who can track her down.
Nine books in, Emily’s personal situation has changed from what I first imagined for her; that is the delight in writing a long series. Characters grow and change. Not fundamentally, perhaps, but the way people do, reacting to situations, learning from mistakes and triumphs. And those characters are what make sitting down with an installment of a favorite series so wonderful: you get to catch up with old friends. Something more important than ever these days, when we’re all stuck inside.