Q&A: Loretta Chase, Author of the “Dressmakers” Series

In Loretta Chase’s Carsington Brothers titles Lord Perfect (LJ 2/15/06) and Last Night’s Scandal (LJ 8/10), we meet the Dreadful DeLuceys, familiarly known as a notorious lot of liars, frauds, and swindlers. Another branch of the family is introduced in her new Dressmakers series (Silk Is for Seduction, LJ 6/15/11; Scandal Wears Satin, LJ 6/15/12, p. 58). LJ spoke with Chase via email about all of her fabulous creations.

LJ: Trying to gain sympathy for the type of character who is usually a book’s villain (e.g., the Dreadful DeLuceys) can be risky. What made you choose these unconventional heroines and unorthodox protagonists?

LC: Risk is part of the deal as a writer. You write the story and take your chances with the readers. Given the built-in perils, the author might as well follow her instincts. My writerly instincts are drawn to misfits, outsiders, and troublemakers. They’re fun to write, because, among many other things, they’re complicated and don’t do the expected thing. The DeLuceys might fit somewhere in the family of characters that include [television’s] Maverick and George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman. That my misfits, troublemakers, and wheeler-dealers are women is bound to be a problem for some readers‚ but it’s death to creativity to fret about pleasing everybody. And I do think my heroines stand a good chance with anybody who’d get a kick out of, say, Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, or Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy, and all those other actresses who gave such delicious comic performances during the Golden Age of movies.

LJ: And then you continued the gene pool with your Dressmakers titles.

LC: For those of us romance writers striving for historical authenticity, unconventional heroines are a good choice, because they can do what their more respectable sisters cannot. Thus the three Noirot women: they’re ambitious, they teeter between unscrupulousness and a pride-driven sense of ethics, and they’re completely outside the social norm. By the 1830s (the time of my Dressmakers series), prudery was steadily creeping into English life, and women’s behavior became increasingly restricted‚ as did their clothing: tight-waisted, with layers of petticoats and those mad sleeve puffs (not exactly lightweight), which provided crucial support for the gigantic sleeves. By the 1830s, women couldn’t move physically as easily as their mothers had done in the high-waisted muslin gowns of the 1800s and 1810s. (Dancing, in some of those 1830s gowns, must have been a trip.) With the Noirots/DeLuceys, the clothes and the behavior play off each other‚ restriction vs. freedom, convention vs. amorality. That’s been so much fun.

LJ: You like to redeem your heroines, such as the notorious courtesan in Your Scandalous Ways. Is this a difficult tack to take? Is it easier to redeem a hero or a heroine?

LC: Second chances is one of my themes. In the 19th-century English novels I grew up with and loved, the woman who went astray came to a bad end. I always hated those endings, even before I understood how misogynistic they were. So I rewrite them. One of the models for Francesca [Your Scandalous Ways, LJ 4/15/08], for instance, was Violetta in La Traviata. It was very liberating to write about a woman who wasn’t bound by any rules of propriety. Her aria Sempre libre, was the key to Francesca’s character. Freedom is what Francesca finds after she’s thrown out of respectable society and becomes a courtesan. That part of character development wasn’t difficult. The challenge, as always, was to create the right balance and connection between hero and heroine. Making James a 19th-century version of 007 allowed me to work with a hard, jaded man who’s lived his adult life in a very dark world, much darker than hers. She brings light into it, even though she’s the opposite of the virginal heroine who typically plays that role. I’d say heroes are generally easier to redeem because men have always been allowed greater freedom of behavior‚ the double standard is alive and well in the 21st century‚ and we tend to be more forgiving of men’s behavior.

LJ: You describe the beautiful clothing in Scandal Wears Satin down to the last flounce, making each garment a vision in the reader’s mind. How much research went into that process?

LC: A couple of shelves of books on historical clothing, many hours of studying 1830s women’s and men’s magazines (which would have been next to impossible for me in the era before Google Books), and trips to Colonial Williamsburg to pick the brains of the milliners and tailors, whose knowledge extends well beyond the time period they represent at the site. They helped me understand the dressmaking business as well as the construction of garments and the way the infrastructure‚ corsets, sleeve puffs, etc.‚ works. This, in my world, is not laborious. Please. I get to read fashion magazines all day and call it work. Never mind they’re from 1835 and the writing can be impenetrable at times. I just think of it as a foreign language in which I’m somewhat competent. Yes, it’s very intensive research, but I love research and, being shallow, especially love studying and thinking about fashion.

LJ: Your dialog and settings are often uproariously funny. Is this always deliberate or are you just naturally funny?

LC: That’s just the way the words come out when I write. My muse is a comedian, apparently. I’m not that amusing in real life, except once in a while by accident. Samuel Johnson was describing me, for certain, when he said, The best part of any writer is in general to be found in his book. The part of me not in a book is kind of boring and often mute in company, unless called upon to expound on some historical point or correct somebody’s historical misconceptions, at which point I am transformed from boring to annoying.

LJ: Fenwick, the young urchin with sticky fingers in Scandal Wears Satin, is a charming foil to the aristocratic Longmore; his comments are priceless. What happens to Fenwick? Do you already have plans to bring him back as the hero in a book set 15 years in the future?

LC: I do love that boy. But while Fenwick will probably reappear over the course of the Dressmakers series, it’s highly unlikely I’ll follow him into adulthood, because 15 years in the future is Victoria and Albert time, and I’m not keen to go there. In any event, turning child characters into adults is no picnic. It took me several years to figure out how to bring Olivia and Peregrine of Lord Perfect to adulthood. Happily, this did not require my venturing into the Victorian era‚ the 1830s hilariously lunatic clothes do at least make up for the loss of the Regency era’s rough and tumble joie de vivre. But after 1835, women’s fashion gets depressingly droopy‚ the hair is a horror‚ and stays that way for decades.

LJ: Tell us about your upcoming writing plans.

LC: In July, Avon will bring out Royal Bridesmaids, another Avon Impulse e-anthology, to which Gaelen Foley, Stephanie Laurens, and I have contributed short stories. (Last year we did Royal Weddings.) In progress is the third book of the Dressmakers series, featuring the third sister, Leonie Noirot, the shop’s CFO, who will, of course, make the hero’s life extremely difficult. And Lady Clara’s story will continue.

Bette-Lee Fox About Bette-Lee Fox

Bette-Lee Fox (blfox@mediasourceinc.com) is Managing Editor, Library Journal.

Now in her 46th year with Library Journal, Bette-Lee also edits LJ's Video Reviews column, six times a year Romance column, and e-original Romance reviews, which post weekly as LJ Xpress Reviews. She received the Romance Writers of America (RWA) Vivian Stephens Industry Award in 2013 for having "contributed to the genre or to RWA in a significant and/or continuing manner"