Sunday, June 23, 2013

An Interview with Christine Trent, Lady of Ashes

The Rockville 8 is pleased to welcome historical-fiction writer Christine Trent to our blog. Christine is the author of four novels set in England and France during the Industrial Revolution. Her newest novel, Lady of Ashes from Kensington Books, was released in March 2013 and tells the story of Violet Morgan, a Victorian lady undertaker.

Perhaps you're wondering if I mistyped that. Undertaker? That's right; the book's feisty and resolute heroine is a dismal housekeeper, but a very successful undertaker. When the book opens, Violet Morgan operates a funerary business with her then-husband Graham. As the story evolves, the reader quickly learns that it is Violet--her business savvy,  hard work and empathy--that makes Morgan Undertaking a success. Let's chat with Christine and learn a little bit about her heroine, her creative process and historical research.

R8: Christine, most historical fiction focuses on women of leisure but Lady of Ashes (LOA) is the fourth in what I call your "career woman" series. What draws you to create stories about working women during this time period?

CT: Well, I’ve actually written about working women from the late 18th century through the middle of the 19th century.  The Queen’s Dollmaker, about a dollmaker to Marie Antoinette, was set in France and England of the Revolutionary period.  I’ve also written about an apprentice to the great waxworker, Madame Tussaud (A Royal Likeness), as well as having written a Regency-set piece about a cloth merchant (By the King’s Design).

I think a lot of traditional professions (seamstresses, fan-makers, lacemakers, and so forth) have been done really well by several authors, and I thought it would be interesting to explore more off-beat professions a woman might have.  The ideas for the professions mostly stem from my own interests. 

For example, I have an extensive doll collection, and when I learned that Marie Antoinette collected dolls, it really made me wonder about who would have supplied them to the queen.  I’ve also visited Madame Tussauds in several cities, and have always been fascinated by the art of waxworks.  In By the King’s Design, the hero is a cabinetmaker, which is homage to my husband, who is my very own talented cabinetmaker hero.

What prompted your interest in undertaking and funerary occupations for your characters? In your research, did you find examples of women undertakers?  Was this an unusual occupation for a woman?

CT: The idea for Lady of Ashes actually came from a writer friend of mine, Mary Oldham, who suggested to me that an undertaker would be a “fun” profession to explore for a heroine.  Indeed it was.  I was amazed at how much there was to the funeral business beyond black dresses, black bunting on the windows, and those silly bell-ringer coffins.  For example, did you know that when someone died, all of the household clocks would be stopped?  It was a signal that time had stopped for the deceased, and he needed to know this so that he could move on to the other side.

Also, embalming was not widely practiced until the U.S. started using it during the Civil War, to preserve the bodies of dead soldiers who might need to make long train rides home.  British Victorians found embalming to be a very un-Christian practice, because it amounted to filling a body full of nasty chemicals and then committing it to the ground.  Who says the Victorians weren’t environmentally conscious?

As for existing female undertakers…they would be unusual indeed.  I have no doubt that there were women who worked in undertaker shops with their husbands, and who may have inherited the shops when their husbands died, but it wouldn’t have generally been a “seemly” practice for a woman.  After all, women did not frequently even attend funerals, much less coordinate them!

It was difficult to find detailed information about specific undertakers of the Victorian era.  I think this was primarily because funerary practices were—and still are today—closely held secrets.  Now, if you want to hear about a Victorian era undertaking scandal, let me know, and I’ll tell you about the undertaking team of Hutton and Williams…

R8: Not only is Violet a career-minded woman, but she is also interested in medicine and science—almost unheard of I assume at that time period. Further, Violet is a self-proclaimed failure as housekeeper. Why were these traits important in developing Violet's character?

CT: I wanted Violet to be a really great, scrupulous undertaker.  But I didn’t want her to be perfect, because that would be boring.  So I decided that as a lousy housekeeper, she would be a Victorian rarity—a woman who isn’t domestic AND dallies in a man’s profession.

R8: LOA is set in a very realistic London between 1861 and 1865. How do you research the time period for one of your books?
The Buckingham Palace Mews (horse stables) will figure prominently in 
the book I am currently writing.  Here I am with an audio tour.

CT: Lots of books and lots of Internet time, but I also do original research too.  I always try to find several significant historical events during my time period that I can weave my characters through, as well as having them interact with real historical personages (some famous, and some obscure).

R8: As a reader, I love learning little tidbits of historical information. While several things caught my eye, I'll mention one here: Mr. Crapper and his amazing flush toilet. Unlike our good friends with the X and Y chromosomes, I'm usually not interested in scatological detail, but when I read that Violet's home had one of "Mr. Thomas Crapper's brand-new water closet mechanisms," I admit I ran to Wikipedia right away to learn more.  So, how did this piece of information come to your attention? And what did you learn about Crapper & Co and their slogan,"a certain flush with every pull?"

CT: Well, this goes back to the “lots of books” part of my research.  I have a book called The Compleat Loo.  Enough said.  After all, who isn’t interested in how people once did their business?

R8: In LOA and your earlier novels, the heroine's story is intertwined with royalty and famous people of the time. Tell us about weaving Albert and Victoria into Violet's story.

CT: Actually, my editor liked the weaving of my heroine with Marie Antoinette in The Queen’s Dollmaker, and wanted me to continue the practice of commoners interacting with royalty in subsequent books.  Prior to writing Lady of Ashes, I knew quite a bit about Victoria, but almost nothing about Albert.  Theirs was quite an interesting romance, and she was completely devastated when he died. 
Rockville 8 members may be interested to
 learn that I ran into fellow WRW chapter-mate, Mindy Klasky,
 while standing inside Walter Raleigh’s prison cell at the
 Tower of London.  How weird is that??
I knew that Albert’s death and a female undertaker were an irresistible combination, so I have my heroine work on Albert’s funeral.  Now that was some interesting research!  Did you know that Albert’s body was not only not embalmed, but he was left out to, er, mature, for nearly two weeks before he was buried?  Grenadier guards were stationed at his coffin inside Windsor Chapel, and they had to be changed out every hour or so because they were passing out from the smell.

You learn some really weird stuff when you research undertaking.

R8: With LOA you introduced an element of intrigue and mystery. How did that come about and where do you think that will take you?

CT: As I researched historical events in my time period, I learned about an unusual killer who was on the loose at the time.  I’ll say no more lest I spoil the plot.  But I really wanted to incorporate the killer, which led me to a bit of a side mystery plot.  As a result, Lady of Ashes is becoming a series, with the heroine now an amateur detective.

R8: Can you give us a sneak peek of what you're working on next?

CT: I’ve turned in the first sequel to Lady of Ashes, and am working on the next book of Violet’s adventures.  You can expect more details about Victorian-era undertaking in each book.  Fingers crossed that my publisher will want to buy more.

R8: In the photo on the right, Christine is standing on the very windy Westminster Bridge where Violet will have a harrowing experience in the sequel to Lady of Ashes, so stay tuned for the next book in the Lady of Ashes series (click here).

Haven't read Lady of Ashes?  Win a free book and get started!

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  1. Welcome to Rockville 8 Christine! We're so glad you dropped to chat. I'm really fascinated with your working women series. After reading the blog I was reminded of an 18th century female artist from Charleston SC: Henrietta Johnston.

    here's what wiki says: pastelist of uncertain origin active in the English colonies in North America from approximately 1708 until her death. She is both the earliest recorded female artist and the first known pastelist working in the English colonies.

    What I remember from my days at the museum that held her art work was that Henrietta plied her trade to keep her family afloat. I believe too that one of her husbands had printing company and when he died she took that over.

    Fodder for another book perhaps? And there is no where better than Charleston to conduct research.


  2. Hi, Christine! No, I've not come to harass you ;) I'm sorry to say I've not yet managed to read your book--we were doing some renovations and now I'm hopelessly behind with things (as usual), but I know where it is in the disaster that is my house.

    Do you suppose they waited so long to bury Albert to be sure he was dead? I'm just reading A Governess in the Age of Jane Austen, edited by Joanna Martin, and I think Agnes Porter, the governess, specified that they should wait a day to bury her--I'm guessing to be sure she was, in fact, dead. And was it just in the Regency where they had bells at the graves that those buried could wring if they came to and found themselves six feet under? (Or am I making that up?)

  3. Shellie, thanks for having me. Ironically, I have both a painter and a printer on my list of professions to cover. There are many documented female portraitists on record, beyond the famous Vigee Le Brun, who painted Marie Antoinette.

    Charleston is one of my favorite cities. I would love to conduct research there!


  4. Sally,

    Yes, the bell ringing was a facet of Victorian life, too. In my next book, you will read about a few of the different types of coffins that were developed to prevent accidental live burial. It rarely happened, but everyone was terrified of it.

    The term "wake" comes from the practice of having someone sitting near the dead body, it case it would unexpectedly "wake up" before burial.

    As for Albert, I think time ticked on as plans were being made for him in a fairly disorganized fashion. Also, the queen was pretty unaccepting of his death, going so far as to have his clothes laid out for him each day for ten years beyond his death.


  5. ::grin::

    I can't wait to see how you incorporate "our" trip to London into the next book! (I came away with jillions of story ideas, and I'm certain you did too...)

    I've had fun telling friends how we found each other at the Tower!

  6. Okay, I'll bite: What's up with Hutton and Williams?

    Christine - what a fabulous view into the worlds you create. Yum! I look forward to learning more about Violet's adventures!!

  7. Mindy, I've babbled on and on about how we met at the Tower, too. Such a strange coincidence. Will I also see you in Atlanta? (Not so much of a coincidence there.)


  8. Thanks, Keely, for asking about Hutton & Williams!

    They were two Civil War surgeon embalmers (there wasn't a huge distinction in the two profession at the time). They came up with quite a scheme: they went to battlefields right after the fighting was done and collected dead bodies, embalmed them, then wrote to the soldiers' families, notifying them that the bodies had been embalmed and it would cost an extortionate amount of money for the embalming before the bodies would be returned to the families for burial.

    Needless to say, a whole lot of families were quite unhappy with the proceedings. Hutton and Williams were eventually arrested and tried, but were able to escape prosecution.

    A Hutton & Williams undertaker's bag once came up on Ebay for sale. I tried my darndest to win it, but someone else out there must have known the story, because the price went way too far up for my purse.


  9. Christine ~ Thanks so much for guest blogging this week. Wow, I love your historical take on career women. And what an absolutely fascinating and unique angle on each of these professions. Love it. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us. I look forward to reading Lady of Ashes and the sequel!

  10. Christine, love, love, love your new cover and I absolutely adore your premise!

    I had a girlfriend in high school determined to become an undertaker. And she went to a major university to study mortuary science. This was a rarity even in the 1990s let alone in the 1880s! I can only imagine the motivations of a Victorian woman becoming an undertaker. I'll be thrilled to read your book to explore what they could be!

  11. Hutton & Williams - great story! Macabre and freaky, but it's the kind of thing writers just can't make up.

    For some reason it reminds me of a line of dialogue from a fave sci-fi author, Lois McMaster Bujold (paraphrased here): Poison, 1 dollar. Antidote, 100 dollars.

    People are always looking for ways to game the system. It's always fascinating to see how that urge comes down through the ages.

  12. Wow, Christine, I really need to move you up to the top of my TBR pile! Your books sound so intriguing, and I'm loving the idea of your "Lady of Ashes" heroine becoming an amateur detective! Such fascinating details about Victorian life and death--thank you so much for sharing! Best wishes with your release! :-)

  13. Nichole, I've never met a female undertaker before (even on the show "Six Feet Under" the men did the actual undertaking). Is your friend still in the funeral business? She would probably be interested in LADY OF ASHES. ;)


  14. Keely,

    As they say, truth is stranger than fiction, no?


  15. Kathy,

    Thank you for your kind words. I have to credit my editor at Kensington Books, Audrey LaFehr, with the idea of turning my undertaker into a detective. I had written the book as a standalone piece of fiction, and it was Audrey who announced at RWA Nationals last year that she'd like to see the book as a series.