I could not resist asking Tessa Arlen for an interview, partly because I’m always very nosy about what fellow authors are up to, and partly because I always feel inspired after I read their journey to publication. Although Tessa’s own life, as she kindly told it to me, reads like one of Nancy’s postwar novels, I am most intrigued by her debut novel, The Countess and Mrs Jackson, the first in the series which is set for publication in January 2015.
How long have you been writing for and what inspired you to write The Countess and Mrs. Jackson?
I have been writing in some form or another for most of my life: unpublished short stories, lengthy letters to my family when I first moved to America thirty years ago. When our children grew up and went about their own lives, I decided to write a full length novel. I never imagined when I set out to do this that it would be published.
I was inspired to write a historical novel because it was the only subject in school, apart from English Literature that held any genuine interest. I was a terrible student; a real day-dreamer! My parents lived abroad and I was sent home to school in England when I was ten. The contrast between my boarding school at the top of a windy hill in the Chilterns with its drafty dormitories and frightful food was a stark one to my earlier life in the lush, easy-going tropics. I was in such culture shock I just disappeared into my own world. I was rescued from complete academic disaster by my history teacher, Lady Elfreda Neale. She was a strange old lady: tall, rather stooped with straight, iron-gray hair. She spoke in such a low tone we had to lean forward to hear her. But my goodness she made history come alive! She was very fond of telling us that history was simply “very old gossip.” I have been a fascinated amateur historian ever since.
The years before the Great War have always been intriguing, so it was easy to choose this era for my book. It was a colossal time of change politically and socially in Britain. Life for the privileged few was idyllic thanks to their money and the rigidity of the class system. But a long agricultural depression was beginning to take its toll on the landed gentry, and there was a strong Liberal government hell-bent on much needed social reform and looking to tax the landowners to fund them. An arms race with Germany; strikes, strong trade unions and socialism; the loss of the power of veto in the House of Lords and a women’s movement that had turned decidedly nasty were events that heralded a new century in England. I thought all this wonderful conflict would make a good back drop to my story.
It was important to me to write a story featuring two women, who struggle with issues in context with their time in history. My two protagonists come from opposite ends of the class system and work together to discover the identity of a murderer, each motivated by different reasons, and who build a sort of friendship in the process.
Was your manuscript accepted on the first attempt, and if not, how many times were you rejected before receiving an offer?
Yes, it was! I have a wonderful agent, she submitted to nine publishers and we had two offers within five weeks. Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press bought The Countess and Mrs. Jackson and the next book in the series. But I had my share of rejects; finding an agent took me well over a year. I submitted to a hundred and twenty four agents and tons of rejects later, eight asked for the full manuscript, and two of them offered to represent me. This was a huge turning point, it did so much for my confidence to have someone as professional and well respected in the industry as Kevan actually want to work with me.
What is your writing routine and do you religiously stick to it?
I do have a routine but I don’t force the issue, otherwise I would get neurotic about it. We live on an island in the Puget Sound and our winter days are short and it rains a lot, so I write full-time pretty intensively from October through to April. I have a large garden and in the summer months I have to split my time between writing and gardening so I spend less time on writing.
How do you overcome writers block?
It helps if I plot out my storyline very thoroughly before hand. Then I write minutely detailed descriptions of my characters so that I am really familiar with them. I do the same thing with the time I’m writing about and the place. When these elements are squared away that’s when I start to write. As the story unfolds on paper other ideas just sort of crop up as I go along, and the story takes over and almost writes itself. I keep going until I have a first draft. Only then do I start my re-writes and revisions, never during.
Who are your literary heroes?
In my early twenties I read all of P.G. Wodehouse’s books one year and absolutely adored the inimitable Jeeves, with his deferential respect as he wields the upper-hand. I love the way he punishes Bertie when he gets out of line and wears the wrong color socks, or a cummerbund with his white tie and tails! Bertie is a delight, he is such an affable twit, but I absolutely respect and admire Jeeves.
E. F. Benson’s Lucia stories. I know so many Lucias! I love all her pretensions and her wonderful ‘friendship’ with Georgie and how ruthless she is about running Riseholme. I adore her morceau of Beethoven and her conversazione larded with cunning little Italian phrases. There is something so admirable about women who relentlessly go for what they want, and incidentally make so much happen for everyone else. They aren’t awfully comfy to be with, but they are compelling.
Patrick O’Brien’s Captain Jack Aubrey. I wish I knew Jack Aubrey. Apart from his tendency to philander and his lengthy periods of time at sea, I would like my daughters to marry someone with his qualities. He genuinely likes women and he has a lovely, self-deprecating sense of humor. He’s compassionate and courageous leader, self-aware and completely without guile; so honestly at ease with himself. Not without his frailties though, his life always falls apart when he is on dry land – so perhaps not son-in-law material!
One of my most favorite characters in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is the Mole. I admire his loyalty, his steadfast kindness and his courage to chuck aside his dull underground life for adventure in a wider world. He wants to make everything work for all the best reasons, which makes him an exceptional and good friend. He also has great humility and in his humble way he is immensely valiant. I wish there were more Moleys in the world.
What attracted you to the Mitfords?
I fell in love with Nancy right off the bat when I read The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate in my twenties. They remain at the top of my re-read list, together with Jane Austen and Watership Down. If I feel low these are the books I reach for. I love Nancy’s deft, wicked wit and appreciate her insightful, unsentimental view of life.
I didn’t know about the other sisters for years. My parents had a house near Bolton Abbey, and it was my mother who filled me in on the Mitford family, as they were a far closer to her generation than mine. She was very impressed by Debo’s entrepreneurial skills and told me that she had rescued Chatsworth and the Cavendish family from financial ruin with her clever plan to restore Chatsworth to its original glory, so that it could be on the ‘stately home round.’ In a less enthusiastic vein she told me Sir Oswald Mosely was married to Diana. Mosely and Diana, in her opinion, were a real no-no. She was a teenager during the war and her parents were appalled by the Blackshirts! However, I admire Diana’s loyalty to her husband who sounds quite awful.
So far as Unity is concerned, I read a fascinating book about her by David Pryce-Jones. Part of me was astonished that anyone could be so stupid to be so wrapped up in someone as frightful as Hitler. I delved a bit deeper into the Mitford sisters and their strange rather isolated upbringing and their deeply eccentric parents; today they would be considered neglectful. I realized what a heartbreaking story Unity’s was. I felt she never fit into her family and she was very much at odds with herself. I think the Hitler business was her desperately trying to find herself, and because she was so naïve she didn’t quite see what she had got herself into. I think her’s is such a cautionary tale; we are often capable of such thoughtless actions when we are young and sometimes pay a terrible price.
Who is your favourite Mitford and why?
Well it has to be Nancy because she makes me laugh so much. I have just finished re-reading The Blessing and it is as fresh and funny as it was when I first read it. I love Don’t Tell Alfred, because it rather reminds me of my own childhood and how difficult it was for my parents when my sister and I joined them abroad for school vacations at whatever Embassy or High Commission they were with at the time. They were such fuddy duddies and we were such products of our generation; looking back I feel quite sorry for them.
Who is your least favourite Mitford and why?
I have never felt especially drawn to Decca. Not because of her politics, but in my view there is something rather cold and sarcastic about her. She lost so much in her life: her young husband Esmond, their baby and her son with Treuhaft and maybe this is the way she dealt with grief.
And last but not least: if you could swap lives with anyone in history (it can include a fictional character) who would it be?
Well I would say Clementine Napier, Countess of Montfort because she conforms to my ideal: a woman of her time unhampered by our contemporary sensibilities, but hugely aware, vigorous and imaginative! But that would be a cheat
I am attracted to lots of historical figures, and then shy away from swapping because some of them were either desperately unhappy or died rather horribly or too young! So given this considerable reservation, I’m going to plump for Constance Gladys Robinson, Marchioness of Ripon, a British patron of the arts who was at the height of her fame and power at the time of my book The Countess and Mrs. Jackson.
Lady Ripon was a close friend of Oscar Wilde, who dedicated his play A Woman of No Importance to her, which just goes to show what bright spark she was in the first place. Other celebrated friends included the opera singer Dame Nellie Melba, whose success in London was largely due to Lady Ripon’s support.
Lady Ripon was six feet tall and considered to be a stunner; she was so beautiful that according to the writer E.F. Benson even the most glamorous in her company looked like ‘they needed a touch of the sponge and the duster.’
Her first marriage had been rather horrid; her husband the Earl of Lonsdale had died of a heart attack while busily engaged in enjoying his own private brothel (point proved about never swapping lives with someone else!) She next married the exceedingly rich Marquess of Ripon and was lucky enough to live in the incomparable Studley Royal, a perfect Palladian jewel of a house surrounded by beautiful gardens and with the exquisite ruins of Fountains Abbey in its grounds. But Lady Ripon was a sophisticated individual and preferred not to isolate herself in North Yorkshire, and set up house at Coombe Court in Kingston so she could be on hand for her pet project the Royal Opera House.
It was Lady Ripon who was entirely responsible for making a night at the opera a desirable occasion at this time. She rescued the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden from financial ruin and was undoubtedly responsible for Nellie Melba’s success as its star performer. But it was the Ballet Russe, invited by Lady Ripon to London in the summer of 1911 to perform in front of the new king and queen on the evening before George V’s coronation, which swept society off its feet. Lady Ripon organized a truly gala event. None of the illustrious company gathered together at the Royal Opera House that evening were quite prepared for the spectacle that was the Russian Ballet and Vaslav Nijinsky. Thousands of roses decorated the tiers of the boxes in which they sat dazzled by the sets and costumes, and then Nijinsky leapt onto the stage, wearing only a tight, skin-colored silk tricot onto which were sewn hundreds of pink and red silk petals for his performance of Spectre de la Rose. But it was the dancing that enthralled. The following day it was reported in the Times: ‘Nijinsky seems to be positively lighter than air, for his leaps have no sense of effort and you are inclined to doubt if he really touches the stage between them.’ To attain this astonishing leap, Nijinsky told Lady Ripon, he made the air his medium ‘It is very simple, I just jump and stop in the air for a moment.’
Her introduction of the Ballet Russe started a new fashion of Bakst inspired vibrant colors, and it became awfully chic to lounge around in scarlet and pink chiffon Turkish trousers in a boudoir made over to look like an Ottoman seraglio. The ballet was a triumph and returned to London for years.
I chose Gladys Marchioness of Ripon because she was clever, witty, resourceful and beautiful with a flair for organizing spectacular events, as well as an exceptionally astute business woman. She was also tall, which is something I have yearned for all my life.
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