Exclusive interview with author Kathleen Tessaro and a review of her new novel that traces a modern day romance set against the mystery of two scandalous sisters in the 1930s *** 3 Stars
By Gabrielle Pantera
HOLLYWOOD, CA (Hollywood Today) 10/23/2010 – “About a year ago, I had the idea of writing a novel in which a wayward heroine in present day London stumbles across a mystery concerning a glamorous young debutante from the late 1920s, ” says The Debutante author Kathleen Tessaro. “And as the book develops, their lives and choices began to parallel one another. I was also intrigued by the notion that the story should take place in the Victoria & Albert Museum, mainly because I found it such a fascinating and evocative building. ”
The Debutante is a multi-generational romance. It starts with Cate, who leaves New York to go home to London after her heart is broken. She finds a temporary job as an antiques appraiser. As she is working on the appraisal she realizes there ’ s a mystery surrounding the Blythe sisters. Now deceased, the once beautiful aristocratic sisters Irene and Diana were debutantes in the 1930s. These two fascinated and shocked society. Jack, a fellow appraiser and widower, has his own demons and ghosts. Cate and Jack reveal secrets and touch upon old scars as they both learn to let go and move forward.
Tessaro knows how to pull you into the two different stories. She uses letters to convey the lives and drama of the Blythe sisters 1930. This well-written book has vibrant characters, both present day and the ones from in the 1930s. What will draw you in is the history, although you may want to see the whole story that is set in the 1930s together, with the present separated a bit more.
“In my grand scheme, my main character should be called into to help inventory its contents and discover a letter…or some such useful device…that sets her off, uncovering this other woman’s life and that all the clues for the mystery should be out in the open, displayed in the vast collection of the V&A, ” says Tessaro. “For example, the designer dress the debutante wore on a significant evening would be on show in the fashion department, a custom made bracelet hidden in the jewelry department, a provocative portrait in the archives of the photography department and so on. I was thrilled by my seemingly brilliant concept. ”
Once Tessaro began to write, she had second thoughts. “I became rapidly overwhelmed with the scale of the V&A, the scope of researching so many different departments and disciplines, and the task of orchestrating the increasing number of characters which came with writing about a national institution of that size. I wanted the book to be a fast-paced, lean and elegant mystery. Instead I was trudging through lumbering explanations and unintentional crowd scenes. ”
“One evening I was moaning to my friend, fellow writer Annabel Giles, on the phone, ” says Tessaro. “What you need, she suggested, is to narrow the whole thing down. You don ’ t need a museum. You need something more manageable, like a shoebox. She paused. ‘In fact, I have a shoebox, ’ she said, then began to laugh. ”
A week later, Tessaro met her friend in London. She ’ d brought a fragile shoe box she ’ d come across years ago. “It was from the 1930 ‘ s and contained a pair of tiny, silver mesh dancing shoes, ” says Tessaro. “I was to discover later that, packed underneath the newspaper, she’d thoughtfully hidden a selection of unrelated objects, including a photograph of a handsome sailor, a beautiful Tiffany’s bracelet, and an old badge from her girls boarding school. There was also a spoon, some lace, a brooch in the shape of a butterfly and other objects I wasn’t able to incorporate into my tale. I really tried to write about the spoon but it, in particular, proved quite tricky.
“She instructed me, in her best head girl voice, ‘You can use a few or all of the objects in anyway you choose, but they must add up to the resolution of your mystery, ” says Tessaro. “Oh, and you ’ re not allowed to even look at the objects in the box until you’ve written up to point in the story where your main character finds it. Then it will really be a surprise. ”
“Annabel was right,” says Tessaro. “Of course I didn’t need an entire collection of rare objects on display in one of the world’s largest museums. The shoe box was more real and far more human. One of her many gifts as a friend is her ability to slice right through my grandiosity and get to the nub of the thing. ”
“I did research concerning the period between the wars in England, famous socialites of the time, including the Mitford sisters and their style of expressing themselves, which is highly idiosyncratic, ” says Tessaro. “I looked into the Clivden Group and the intense political tensions which shaped the period. I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of these young beautiful socialites entering an intoxicating world where their sexual appetites and political idealism were so dangerously intertwined. ”
Tessaro ’ s inspiration for the characters of Irene and Diana “Baby ” Blythe was culled from many well known sources…the Mitford sisters, Zita and Teresa Jungman, the Curzon sisters and the Vanderbilts. “These woman have inspired many with their beauty and paradoxical natures, and I ’ m not the first to be intrigued by them. However, the closing revelations of the book were influenced by two remarkable true stories in the national press. ”
“The first one came out just after the Queen Mother died, in April, 2002, when it was discovered that two of her first cousins, Katherine and Nerissa Bowes Lyon, daughters of the Hon. John Herbert Bowes-Lyon [ the second son of the 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorn and brother of the Queen Mother ] and the Hon. Fenella Hepburn-Stuart-Forbes-Trefusis, had been locked away in the Royal Earlswood Hospital at Redhill, Surrey for some 60 years, ” says Tessaro. “They arrived at the mental institution, aged 15 and 22, in 1941. Both were said to be severely handicapped. Such was the shame of the family at having handicapped children that Narissa was listed in Burke ’ s Peerage as having died in 1940 and Katherine was listed as having died in 1961. In this way, they simply ceased to exist anymore. The family rarely visited them and the royal household never acknowledged them. ”
Tessaro says they were later joined by three of their first cousins who had all been certified as mentally disturbed. Daughters of the Hon. Harriet Hepburn-Stuart-Forbes-Trefusis and Major Henry Nevile Fane, Indonea Fane. known by the staff as “Baby ” , and Etheldreda Flavia Fane and Rosemary Jean Fane were admitted to The Royal Earlswood Hospital all on the same day.
“When Nerissa died in the mid-1980s, she was buried at Redhill Cemetery, ” says Tessaro. “At first there was only a plastic tag with a serial number on it to mark her grave, though there is a headstone now. Katherine, called “Lady ” by the staff, was then moved to Ketwin House, a care home for the mentally disabled, where she was joined by Indonea. ” Tessaro says Ketwin House was eventually closed in 2001 amidst allegations of sexual, physical and financial abuse of its patients.
“The fees to keep Katherine Bowes Lyon at Ketwin House, around £770 per year, were paid for by the NHS, despite her family ’ s wealth, ” says Tessaro. “One care worker who knows Katherine said she ’ s a lovely person. She loves to watch TV, especially royal weddings, although she was never told that a relative was getting married. She laughed all the way through Charles and Diana ’ s wedding. She really could have prospered but instead she’s been left to vegetate. Katherine is apparently sill alive and a resident of an unidentified nursing home in Surrey. ”
“The second story is more recent, ” says Tessaro. “In July 2008 it was revealed that more than 40 women typhoid sufferers had been locked up for life in a large red brick Victorian mental asylum in Long Grove in Epsom, Surry, between 1907 and 1992. It was reported that although they were sane when admitted, many went mad as a result of their incarceration, though painfully, some remained completely compos mentis despite the hardship they endured. Many had families, jobs and children, yet, were forgotten by everyone and detained in prison-like conditions, some for up to 60 years. ”
Despite the advent of antibiotic treatments in the 1950s, the women continued to be detained for the rest of their lives on the grounds that their mental health was compromised says Tessaro. The information came to light in two volumes of records found in the derelict building long after its closure. Tessaro viewed documents at local libraries and used the Internet for research.
Tessaro ’ s agents are Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown in London and Jennifer Joel at ICM in New York.
“I wasn’t having much luck finding anyone and a friend of mine suggested I try her agent, Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown, ” says Tessaro. “He was, and is, a bit of a star in the publishing world, so I didn’t hold out much hope. However, he was the only agent who got in touch with me after I sent him the first 50 pages of Elegance. ”
Geller worked with Tessaro as she rewrote her material, giving her copious notes, then auctioned the book among four major publishing houses. “I was still receiving rejections in the mail from other agents while Jonny was managing the bidding war ! Very surreal. Jennifer Joel at ICM works alongside Jonny to handle my American interests. ”
Tessaro ’ s editors are Lynne Drew, Carrie Feron and Katie Espiner at Harper Collins UK and Harper Collins USA.
Tessaro met Lynne Drew during the initial auction process, along with other editorial teams from Random House and Hodder and Staughton. “I related to Lynne’s approach to my material the best, and we ’ ve worked on four books together now. Her input has absolutely contributed to my growth as a writer. As she ’ s taken on more demanding roles at Harper Collins UK, Katie Espiner has come on board to guide me. Carrie Feron has been my acting U.S. editor for a number of years and has helped to adapt my material for the American market. Together they make quite a formidable team. ” Tessaro says offers for screen adaption of The Debutante are being discussed.
Tessaro is currently working on her fifth book, My Sin. “It concerns a young woman in 1950s London who inherits an apartment in Paris from a woman she ’ s never met. While there, she discovers three remarkable perfumes, labeled only with the names of places and dates…blended for the mysterious French woman as scent memories, marking turning points in her life. The book reveals the story of how these women are connected and the unique power of fragrance to capture powerful emotion. ”
Tessaro recently moved back to Pittsburgh, the city of her birth, after living in London for 23 years. She doesn ’ t have a website.
The Debutante: a Novel
Author Kathleen Tessaro
Trade Paperback, 400 pages, Publisher: Avon A ; Original edition ( October 5, 2010 ) , Language: English, ISBN: 9780061125782 $13.99