Sophia Holloway discusses the themes and inspirations behind her latest novel, The Devil You Know.
Why do you choose to write books set in the Regency period?
There is a certain decadence, a confidence, within the upper echelon of society, a bit like the decade prior to the outbreak of World War I. Britain is at war, and it is getting to grips with an urban and industrialised working class, and yet for the most part Society, with a capital S, does not take much notice. Unless one has relatives in the Army or the Royal Navy, the war against Napoleon which takes up the first few years of the Regency is merely a background. Of course for many of the younger characters, it has been in the background their entire lives. There is an unashamed joie de vivre that was later repressed by Victorian morality, which was in its turn a reaction to the licentiousness of the Regency. At the same time, there are rigid rules and conventions that are broken at the individual’s peril.
It is also a period with which I am familiar, not least from my military history background. The Peninsular War was my first interest, and I grew up on Georgette Heyer. I loved her attention to detail, the repartee, the humour. There is nothing wrong with ‘escapism’ in reading for pleasure, and in whichever genre I write I seek to create a world into which the reader can escape for a few happy hours.
Are Regency novels outdated in the 21st century?
My books follow the ‘classic’ route rather than those of ‘modern Regency romance’, however they are not in some mid-twentieth century time warp. I adhere to Heyer’s principles, but I am not trying to copy her. After all, one could not out-Heyer Heyer. My style is not the same, and I spend a far greater time seeing the situations from the male perspective. It is rare in a Heyer romance to have any insight into the gentlemen’s thoughts, but since I have been writing in another genre for over a decade, and one where the main characters are male, I feel perfectly at home working from within the male mindset. This in its turn means that where Heyer acknowledged a mere ‘batsqueak’ of sexuality, there is an acceptance of physical desire as part and parcel of their characters. Whilst well-bred young ladies were innocent to the point of ignorance (knowledge of where babies come from is not the same as how they get there), it was accepted that young gentlemen would enjoy liaisons. It is therefore perfectly natural for the male characters to allude to physical desire. I prefer allusion, since, if you need diagrams, you ought to be reading a biology text book not a novel.
Do your books include the classic Regency bedroom scenes?
I certainly have scenes set in bedrooms, but not ‘bedroom scenes’. This is not prudery but for two very specific reasons.The first is historicity; in a world where the unmarried woman was considered a ‘failure’, and generally condemned to living as a hanger-on in her family, without the freedom of running her own household, any breath of scandal would be social suicide. If I was writing about the courtesans of the demi-monde, or even bored married ladies, it would be different, because sex happened as it always has, but the penalties for stepping over the socially acceptable line were too high for single ladies.
Ironically, The Devil You Know is the only story so far set within a marriage, but in fact it is a ‘back to front’ romance, which commences with the wedding of a couple who do not know each other, alludes to an understandably disastrous wedding night, and then works through a courtship to the point where that disaster can be expunged.
The second reason is that I see the relationship between a novel and the reader as one where the reader is not passive, but involved, and is encouraged to use their imagination. How the reader imagines exactly ’what happens next’, or indeed ‘what has happened’, is up to them. I merely give enough hints on which to build their own picture. The reader therefore imagines events as they would like them to be, dependent upon mood or mindset. Setting a bedroom scene in words can easily feel either voyeuristic or ridiculous, and pitching it just right is exceedingly difficult. Inside their own head the reader is always ‘just right’.
I am also not too detailed about the exact look of characters, so that imagination can fill in as wished. I know just how they look, to my personal satisfaction, but I would hope that fifty readers would have fifty slightly different images in mind. How often is one disappointed when a favourite book is given cinematic treatment but the main characters are ‘not MY idea of . . . ‘?
Sophia Holloway’s The Devil You Know is available now: