Research? But it's Only a Romantic Novel! by Sophie Page

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Sophie Page tells us about the research she did for her latest book.

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Summary: When we finished reading To Marry A Prince we started wondering exactly how you did the research for a book like that. I mean - you can't just tag along for a couple of week's work experience, can you? The book gives a real feel for what the life is like so we asked Sophie to tell us how she did it.
Date: 25 March 2011

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External links: Author's website



When we finished reading To Marry A Prince we started wondering exactly how you did the research for a book like that. I mean - you can't just tag along for a couple of week's work experience, can you? The book gives a real feel for what the life is like so we asked Sophie to tell us how she did it.

Research? But it's Only a Romantic Novel!

When Kate Middleton and Prince William announced their engagement last year, it tapped into something that had been stirring in the primeval soup I call my novelist's imagination for a while. Cinderella! What was it like being the nobody? What was it like being the Prince? Could two people, with absolutely no overlap, in such different worlds, really meet and fall in love?

The first thing to establish was the Prince's world, since that was going to be furthest from my own experience. I could, of course, make it up completely, like the court of the Ming the Merciless. But I wasn't sure I would believe it, and if I didn't, my readers certainly wouldn't. On the other hand, my Prince did not come from the House of Windsor, so I didn't want to research a lot of current protocol at the Court of St James's.

The answer was history. I was tempted to junk Tudors, Stewarts et al and go right back to Richard III, my great hero. But wiser counsels prevailed and instead I looked to the Prince Regent's neglected daughter, for whom I have always had a soft spot. (It was real pleasure to revive her and give her a long and happy marriage and several children.) First I re-read Thea Holme's delightful biography, Prinny's Daughter. That gave me a feeling for the courtiers' power plays between George III and his despotic pseudo-domestic court on the one hand, and the glamorous, wilful and expensive Prince Regent on the other. If you were King, your word was law it seemed, even if it was stupid or unfair From Ian Kelly's wonderful Beau Brummell I took more royal conventions and, also, the sense of how easily a courtier might be discarded, no matter how great a favourite they had been for a while. The back story of my novel started to knit itself together.

So I knew where my Prince had come from. But what was my Court of today going to be like? Well, it would inhabit a palace - possibly not Buckingham Palace, which George III bought in 1761. By the time he ascended to the throne, George IV already owned the marvellously designed and decorated Carlton House. He might have extended that. Or he might have bought one of the other Palaces in London, including Spenser House, (well worth a visit on its Sunday morning openings). Whichever house he chose, he was going to renovate it in a big way as, indeed, he did Buckingham Palace.

The Royal Family would probably have a country estate somewhere, I thought. I plumped for Scotland because I wanted them to have New Year Party and no one does New Year better than the Scots. Drummon House is not Balmoral, of course, because Balmoral was bought by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who would never have reigned and, at least in Victoria's case, probably not even existed in my alternative history.

The New Year Ball brought me to Court protocol—and to Scottish dancing. I used to reel myself, but I have to admit to checking Postie's Jig at the Scottish Country Dancing Dictionary, a helpful online source, before setting my characters off on that dance.

But protocol was a real stumbling block.

I picked up a number of dos and don'ts in the fifties from The Last Season by Anne de Courcy, as well as diaries like those of Sir John Colville, Assistant Private Secretary to first Chamberlain, then Churchill in the early years of the War. He went on to be Private Secretary to the then Princess Elizabeth 1947 – 49. And no, I didn't read them especially for this book. They were already on my shelves and I dipped in to refresh my memory. It hardly took me long to realise that the precise conventions didn't matter. What I had to do was create a set of rules to prevent the King and Queen being wrong-footed by intrusive questions or people behaving like pillocks. So, like George III's Queen Charlotte, as Mrs Delaney told Fanny Burney, my Queen has to start all the conversations, so that no one else choose the wrong subject. The dress code, however, is managed and policed by courtiers and entirely my own invention.

For the rest – yes, people do count fish in the Indian Ocean, like my Bella. I had guidance from someone who's done it. And yes, Isabella Bird, for whom my Bella is named, was an intrepid female explorer of the nineteenth century, who wrote some amazing traveller's tales. As far as I know she has no biography, but you can read her own works, such as A Lady's life in the Rocky Mountains (1879) which I first found and couldn't resist when I was about fourteen! And yes, the King's hero, John Penn, was eventually president of the Institute of Mechanical Engineering and he did build the engine of HMS Sphinx, a steam paddle boat; it is a thing of beauty. I found both fossicking about at the IMechE's own website, trying to imagine I was the King.

Was any of this necessary? I don't know. But as I wrote, it made my story feel tethered to reality in lots of small, insignificant ways, which pleased me and made me feel that my characters, whom I know and love, have a world they deserve. I hope you agree.