Friday, July 15, 2022

Tessa Arlen Interview - A Dress of Violet Taffeta

Photo Content from Tessa Arlen

Tessa Arlen is the author of the critically acclaimed Lady Montfort mystery series—Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman was a finalist for the 2016 Agatha Award Best First Novel. She is also the author of Poppy Redfern: A Woman of World War II mystery series. And the author of the historical fictions; “In Royal Service to the Queen” and available July 5, 2022 “A Dress of Violet Taffeta.”

Tessa lives in the Southwest with her family and two corgis where she gardens in summer and writes in winter.


When/how did you realize you had a creative dream or calling to fulfill?
I am not sure that I realized I had a calling! I was certainly always a dreamer—head either buried in a book or off in my own world. I was a terrible student, unless it was history or English literature. I went to a boarding school in England—enough said about that the better! It wasn’t Jane Eyre’s Lowood, or grim in any way, it was simply routinely boring. I spent most of my time in a daydream world. I think living in my head is what made me become a writer.

Beyond your own work (of course), what is your all-time favorite book and why? And what is your favorite book outside of your genre?
It’s an odd collection of books. Growing up my favorite children’s books were by A. A. Milne, Kenneth Grahame and C. S. Lewis, but The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was what I re-read and red to my children: it was the idea of escaping into another world, a world of magic.

When I was thirteen I fell in love with Anya Seton’s Katherine…pure history and romance with a capital R. I was in love with John of Gaunt for ages!

I have always loved the late 18th and early 19th century: the Brontes, Jane Austen, Wilkie Collins (I am not a Dickens fan) but I think it was Robert Graves’s I, Claudius which made me realize that history made compelling fiction, that the lives of others who had lived before us was fascinating!

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
That I continue to be published *touch wood*. Heaven knows how that has happened! A DRESS OF VIOLET TAFFETA is my eight book!

If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?
Such an unfair question! I think it has to be I, Claudius by Robert Graves. The characters are wonderful, the setting is superbly researched and Graves’s writing is superb—like Shakespeare his characters transcend time with their human frailty, and they have such wit.

What inspired you to write A DRESS OF VIOLET TAFFETA?
An exhibition of Lucy Duff Gordon’s gowns at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Clothes do not age well, but the V&A had curated some stunning Lucile gowns which whisked me back in time to an age long gone. The workmanship, the detail and the superb use of color lit up a very cold, dreary February afternoon. It was an unforgettable afternoon. I had to write Lucy’s story after that.

Your Favorite Quotes/Scenes from A DRESS OF VIOLET TAFFETA
The most difficult scene, and one that I ended up loving the most, was when Lucy is anticipating the arrival of a man who has been her friend for a long time and who she realizes that she is in love with. Up until now Lucy’s previous marriage has taught her not to expect sensuality, pleasure or tenderness in the physical act of love.

Since being abandoned by her first husband, she has been driven, out of necessity to provide, and to her delight she had discovered independence and the gift of waking up every morning eager to get to work. Her world has been satiated with achievement.

She has never thought of herself as at all interested in sex, or passionate love until this moment: the night before her dearest friend who will now become her lover arrives. While the night is balmy and dark she has the opportunity for a swim in the sea, and because she is quite alone she takes off her cumbersome Edwardian bathing costume, to revel in the feeling of being naked in warm salty water.

“She plunged down deep into the sea, and when she kicked upward her breath seethed in tiny phosphorescent bubbles that prickled along her back and belly and broke on the surface like an effervescent wine.”

  • 1. In 1893 Lucy Duff Gordon designed under her label Lucile Ltd. working out of her dining room with her scullery maid as her only assistant to support her aging mother and five year old daughter. Five years later she opened her salon in London and everyone wanted an appointment to consult.
  • 2. Lucy was fond of naming her favorite gowns: The Sigh of Lips Unsatisfied; Passion Flower’s First Kiss; A Dress of Endless Summer and a gown she designed for debutantes simply called Happiness.
  • 3. She was at the forefront of introducing her new season’s models in a live runway show which caused a sensation.
  • 4. Lucy adored her American clients: she loved New York and its apparent unpretentious informality. In turn New York loved Lucy: everyone wanted a dress designed by Lady Duff Gordon!
  • 5. Lucy’s London salon in Hanover Square became not just a place to go to order a new wardrobe. Her fitting rooms were private and very luxurious…society hostesses would often entertain an admirer to ‘tea’ in their fitting room as they waited for Lucy to cone and consult with them
  • 6. In 1893 when Lucy designed her first dress women were still enclosed in steel and whalebone corsetry (giving them the S shape of the time) underneath their gowns and skirts they worse yards of heavy Swiss Cotton: pantalets, petticoats, corset protectors and crotchless knickers (so they could go to the bathroom without undressing). Lucy changed all that!
  • 7. In Lucile’s London salon Lucy created the Rose Room, it was furnished with a Louis XIV four poster bed and strewn casually about the room and the bed were silky, transparent knickers, chemises that she had designed to go under her new look dresses…and nightgowns. They were a sensation!
  • 8. Lucy, her husband and her assistant survived the sinking of the Titanic. Three years later Lucy was due to travel from New York to London on the Lusitania. She woke up with a sore throat and cancelled her crossing. As the Lusitania neared the coast of southern Ireland the ship was torpedoed by a German U Boat and went down in fifteen minutes. Just over a thousand people on board drowned.
  • 9. Lucy had two assistants she mentioned in her memoire a young girl called Celia who at an astonishingly young age helped her build her business, and a Miss Francatelli, her assistant and secretary, who survived the Titanic with her. I combined these two very real women into the fictitious character of Celia Franklin, who was Lucy’s right hand and deeply loyal friend throughout her career.
  • 10. Lucy was close to her sister, Elinor Glyn, who was a renowned beauty and a strong to overwhelming character and who wrote racy novels of passion. Elinor went to Hollywood in the days of the silver screen and wrote and directed films.
Meet the Characters
Lucy Duff Gordon (nee Wallace) is a tiny woman with delicate bones and a round pretty face, framed with abundant auburn-brown hair. She is quick witted, amusing and energetic; a good friend to her clients and gifted with the ability to listen.

Lucy believes that the dresses she designs should reflect the wearer’s personality and she goes to immense trouble to find out how her clients see themselves. It was for this reason that she becomes one of the most popular designers in London: much-loved by her clients and friends. She is generous, and at a time when sweatshops abounded with women drudging long hours for starvation wages she is a considerate employer. She never loses sight of the ruin she faced when her husband ran off and left her alone to fend in an unforgiving world, so she provides warm and well-lit workrooms and hires a cook to make her seamstresses lunch.

Like all creative people she can be one-track minded and stubborn and expects everyone’s best efforts all the time. If she works long hours, so does everyone else on the payroll. At a time when the right dress for the right occasion is almost a national obsession, she never lets a client down when it comes to producing for a grand occasion. “When some of our clients appears to lose their heads in delight at the sight of a dress we have created for them, it is important to remember that some of these women spend most of their lives not just thinking about their wardrobe, but worrying about it. They change their clothes at least five times a day, they spend hours in their dressing rooms. It would not be an exaggeration to say they live in them.” Lucy’s character is based on the real life Lucy Duff Gordon.

Celia Franklin is a sixteen year old orphan from a workhouse, employed at the start of the novel as a scullery maid in Lucy’s London house. When Lucy has to let all her servants go she can’t bring herself to turn Celia out into the street. From the very start there is an affinity between the two young women: both outcasts, both teetering on the edge of terrifying poverty.

Celia is in awe of the upper classes, their manners, they excessive wealth and their power. She accepts that there is a life for her in their world if she can learn a skill. She sets out to learn from Lucy how to make clothes. She intends to contribute to Lucy’s success and secure her future. She is from the north of England, outspoken, downright practical and without any guile whatsoever. She has a tendency to blurt her thoughts. She worships Lucy, but sees her flaws quite clearly. She is devoted to Lucy’s little daughter. Over the years Celia’s practicality makes her indispensable to the business of Lucile. She and Lucy remains close friend for the rest of their lives.

Celia’s greatest flaw is that she doesn’t embrace change particularly well: she is smart but not imaginative. She is puritanical to an astonishing degree and often shocked at the ‘carryings-on’ of aristocratic ladies. “Bohemian, that’s what they call it, that kind of behaviour.” Celia told herself. “And that’s just another name for a wayward baggage, if you ask me.” Celia’s character is fictitious and is useful in showing the other side of the coin in the fashion world of the super-rich: the women who helped to create these stunning, intricately detailed gowns and the lives of drudgery they led.

Elinor Glyn is Lucy’s younger by a year sister, married to Clayton Glyn a rich dilettante. Elinor is tall, stately with a voluptuous figure much admired in the 1890s. Her hair is a vivid red and she has a strong personality, she is funny, kind, generous and then often supremely selfish. When her husband loses all their money from his addiction to high stakes gambling she writes ‘romantic novels’ the equivalent of today’s bodice rippers, to keep them financially afloat. Elinor Glyn is based on Lucy’s real life sister and writer of the shocking and sensational novel “Three Weeks”.

“Darling, I think everyone believes that my heroine in Three Weeks is you [Lucy]! After all she is nearly thirty when she takes a lover ten years younger than herself.”

“Me?” Lucy’s corset felt uncomfortably restrictive around her ribs. She sat up straight so she could breathe. “But I have not . . . I mean Dougie Chaddesley is not my lover, Elinor. Surely no one could possibly imagine . . .”

Mrs. Kennedy is Lucy and Elinor’s mother. Twice widowed and only happy living in the past, Mrs. Kennedy is crushed by her daughter, Lucy’s, modern behaviour. Particularly that Lucy is in ‘trade’. Mrs. Kennedy is a dreadful snob, a hypochondriac and a major hypocrite. She gave me the opportunity to show readers just how iron-clad the social divide between classes in Edwardian England was. One of her favorite expressions is “If we must eat fish it must be white fish: halibut or Dover Sole—after all we are not a family of shopkeepers..” Mrs. Kennedy is based on Lucy’s real life mother.

Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon is the real life second husband of Lucy Duff Gordon (I could never in a million years have come up with such a wonderful name). Sir Cosmo is a rich baronet who falls for Lucy and patiently waits for her to fall in love with him. His pursuits are simple ones he is a fencer and was on the Olympic fencing team for Britain. Cosmo is the quintessential gentleman of the time. He believes in honor and fair play and to some extent this belief makes him rather unworldly, living as he does protected by his class. “I enjoy Scotland for one thing: salmon fishing. I don’t like shooting, its noisy and doesn’t appear to require much skill—mot the way of playing a salmon or trout. And it’s rather unfair, don’t you think to sneak up on a stag and then when he is browsing in the heather shoot him?”

Your Journey to Publication
I decided to write quite late in my life. My three daughters had left home, it was October and the rain was thundering down so no gardening. I couldn’t imagine what I would do all winter long (I certainly didn’t want to go out and get a real job.) So, I wrote my first book DEATH OF A DISHONORABLE GENTLEMAN a mystery set in Edwardian England. It was my husband who suggested I take the next step and find an agent, which I made into a sort of game. I wrote ten query letters every week and kept a spreadsheet—I still have it. And then out of the blue, months later, I had a positive response and then another. Agents are notoriously slow in responding to new author queries, if they do at all. The woman who became my agent, Kevan Lyon, pointed out all my beginner’s mistakes and I did some serious re-writes for her, and to my absolute astonishment she sold the book to Thomas Dunne, St. Martin’s Press.

On that miraculous day my husband and I went out to lunch to celebrate, and everyone we bumped into in our little town knew I had sold the book! I was literally vibrating with happiness and excitement. You see I had no idea what publishing was really about! Not a clue!

Writing Behind the Scenes
I love the business of thinking up names for my characters. Sometimes they just fly into my head, and at other times I change their names as I get to know them. Among my favorite minor characters are Trevor Tricklebank, wastrel and underachiever with a rich aunt, and Marigold Meriweather, the season’s most desirable and accomplished debutane (DEATH SITS DOWN TO DINNER); Captain, Sir Evelyn Bray hero of the Battle of the Sommes in 1916 and PTSD survivor. and Sir Winchell Meacham landowner who has lost all three of his sons in WWI (DEATH OF AN UNSUNG HERO); Poppy Redfern (POPPY REDFERN AND THE MIDNIGHT MURDERS) an air raid warden in WWII.

What is the first job you have had? 
One week on the biscuit (cookie) counter at FW Woolworth’s in the summer holidays. I reeked of vanilla.

What is the first thing you think of when you wake up in the morning? 
What will I make for lunch

What is your most memorable travel experience? 
A terrible camping trip in the southwest when every single thing went wrong. Our children were very young and we ended up staying in dreadful motels because of some catastrophe that day. At one point we got our four wheel drive stuck in an arroyo with flash flood warning signs everywhere and massive thunderheads looming on the horizon. We were rescued by German tourists. I have hated camping ever since.

What's your most missed memory? 
I grew up in the tropics. When I was eleven my parents put me in boarding school in England. It took me years to get used to it. Whenever I eat tropical fruit like lychees or papaya they bring back a flood of memories: the humid heat; the smell of food cooked over wood-charcoal braziers; the sound of tree frogs at night, and the bright, vivid colors of flowers and birds under a brilliant sun. Oh yes, and the crash of the monsoon rains when they break and everything floats for an hour.

What is one unique thing are you afraid of? 
I am terrified of the dark, deep water, snakes and heights. But all of those are normal to many people. I have never overcome my fear of public speaking. I love virtual book tours!

A sumptuous novel based on the fascinating true story of Belle Epoque icon Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, a woman determined to shatter the boundaries of the fashion world and support herself and her young daughter with her magnificent designs.

Lucy Duff Gordon knows she is talented. She sees color, light, fabric, and texture in ways few other people do. But is the world ready for her? A world dominated by men who would try to control her and use her art for their own gain?

After being deserted by her wealthy husband, Lucy is desperate to survive. She turns to her one true talent to make a living. As a little girl, the dresses she made for her dolls were the envy of her group of playmates. Now, she uses her courageous innovations in Belle Époque fashion to support her own little girl. Lucile knows it is an uphill battle, and a single woman is not supposed to succeed on her own, but she refuses to give up. She will claim her place in the fashion world; failure simply is not an option.

Then, on a frigid night in 1912, Lucy’s life changes once more, when she becomes one of 706 people to survive the sinking of the Titanic. She could never have imagined the effects the disaster would have on her career, her marriage to her second husband, and her legacy. But no matter what life throws at her, Lucile will live on as a trailblazing and fearless fashion icon, never letting go of what she worked so hard to earn. This is her story.

You can purchase A Dress of Violet Taffeta at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you TESSA ARLEN for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of A Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa Arlen.