29 April 2013

Author Interview and Review: Follow the Heart by Kaye Dacus

Katherine Dearing has been sent from Philadelphia to England to find a rich husband who will be able to salvage her family’s financial situation. But at twenty-seven, is she too old to attract a rich husband? Or any husband? Accompanying her is her younger brother, Christopher, who has recently qualified as a solicitor specialising in railway law. He too is under pressure to marry well, although having a profession at least means he can support himself, but both of them find they are attracted to the wrong people.

The siblings are staying with their maternal uncle, Sir Anthony Buchanan, and their cousins, Edith, Dorcas and Florence. There Sir Anthony organises a house party where Kate and Christopher are introduced to many members of the aristocracy, including Viscount Thynne . They also meet Andrew Lawton, a garden designer currently working on the Wakesdown Manor gardens, and Honora Woodruff, governess to the youngest Buchanan.

I really liked the characters, even the ones I didn’t like (if that makes sense). Edith reminded me of Lady Mary from Downton Abbey—well written, but unpleasant and with too high an opinion of herself. Dorcas and Florence were much more likeable, even though they were only minor characters, so I hope we see more of them. A lot of the plot revolved around the gardens, as Kate is a keen gardener, albeit one with quite different ideas to Andrew.

I am always nervous when I see a novel set in England by an American writer, especially a historical. I have had too many ruined by insufficient research and an abundance of Americanisms, so I am relieved and pleased to say that Follow the Heart had no noticeable cultural cringes or historical anachronisms (and, in regards to possible factual errors, the subplot was heavily related to gardening, a subject I know little about, so I really can’t comment). I was also very pleased with the way the Christian aspects of the story were handled, particularly with Kate. My one issue is that the end of the novel felt a bit rushed—although that could be more about me reading too fast to find out how the problems are resolved.

Follow the Heart is the first novel in the new Great Exhibition series, set around Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, London, in 1851. As Follow the Heart finished just after the beginning of the Exhibition, I look forward to seeing more of the Great Exhibition in future novels (hint, hint).

Thanks to B&H Publishing and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

I was interested in finding out more about Kaye Dacus, in particular about how an American researches and writes stories set in Victorian England. Thanks to Kaye for suppling the answers to my questions:

How did you get into the mindset/history of the era?
I had a basic knowledge of the mid-19th Century in England through studying both history and literature in college. But I really started learning about it in earnest when I became fascinated with the Great Exhibition several years ago and decided it would make a great backdrop to a series. I tend to first start getting into an era by watching costume-drama adaptations of novels written or set during that time and in that location. In this case—lots of Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell, and lots of bio-pics about Queen Victoria’s early life/rule. Can it get any better? Being able to watch North & South and The Young Victoria over and over and over again and call it “research”?

Then I start reading the books on which those movies are based. I “collect” interesting words and turns of phrase, look for methods and manners to behavior and social interaction, get a feel for the way the English language was used by those who knew it best during that time. I also find nonfiction research books that can explain the household, society, gender politics, travel modes, fashion, etc.

What interests you most about the Victorian era?
I love that it still has the sensibility of the Regency era—from the activities like balls and dinners to the formality of courting customs—yet in 1851, the world is on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution: train and steamboat travel, telegraph, indoor plumbing (“retiring/refreshing rooms” with pay toilets at the Great Exhibition!). I also love that women were starting to come into their own a bit more. Still not considered equals, but at least starting to get some recognition for their contributions and accomplishments in society.

Where did the idea come from/what was the inspiration?
In 2001, I watched Victoria & Albert on TV and fell in love with the love story of these two monarchs of England. But that wasn’t the only thing I took away from it. I was also fascinated by the scenes which portrayed the planning and opening of Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition in 1851. Then, a few years later, I watched another mini-series: North & South. No, not the one about the American Civil War, the one based on the classic, but little-known, novel by Elizabeth Gaskell. It also has a scene that takes place at the Great Exhibition. Once I saw that, I was hooked—on the era and on the event.

(I loved North and South as well).

Why did you choose to set this series in Oxford, when the Great Exhibition took place in London?
I read at least three or four British-set historical romances each month—and without fail, the majority of them are set in London. It’s a setting that has become over-exposed. Also, with a landscape architect as my main hero, I needed the action to take place at a country house, not in the city. By the 1850s, Oxford was a large enough city to have railway service to all of the other major cities, but still quaint/small enough to give the small-town feel that I love to use in my stories. Plus, there was a lot of chaos happening in London in early 1851 due to the final preparations for the Great Exhibition, and I felt like that could overwhelm what I wanted my story and settings to be.

How did you choose your characters' names?
Funny story . . . Kate’s name was originally Meg and her maid’s name was Joan. Until I picked up a book by a writer friend and discovered those two names (as heroine and her maid, no less!) on the first page. So I went back to my original story idea and the images of the actress who’s the template for the character. And almost as soon as I did, I heard her voice very distinctly in my head: My name is KATE. But rich men don’t marry Kates. They marry Katharines. So I changed her name and nickname to Katharine/Kate (Katharine spelled with an A in the middle in honor of my favorite actress Katharine Hepburn). Andrew is a name I’ve always loved and wanted to use, and it suited this landscape architect perfectly.

(And we know the truth of this, seeing as Kate Middleton is now Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge)

What’s the takeaway/what do you hope will stick with people when they finish reading the book?
Women, especially, tend to look at our choices as a series of obligations—we do what we feel we are obligated to do for the sake of our families, not necessarily what we feel our hearts are telling us to do. I believe, and it’s the theme of this book, that we spend too much time worrying about how we can fix/help/support our families (or those around us at work or in friendships) and not enough time listening to and trusting God. When we pray, we tend to tell God what’s wrong and ask him to fix it. But do we ever really take the time to just be still and listen to what God is trying to tell us? And can we really let God take care of those we feel responsible for and let go of that burden of responsibility that may not, in truth, be ours to bear?

You can find out more about Kaye Dacus at her website.

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