1481975 Curiosities served
2008-05-20 7:05 PM
A Book Behind the Book
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[I've been absent from this journal recently but today I have received some assistance from Beverle Myers, who, with Mary, and I is a Poisoned Pen Press author. Bev's the author of the Baroque Mysteries, an historical series set in Venice featuring singer Tito Amato as an amateur sleuth. Bev's latest novel, The Iron Tongue of Midnight, has received excellent reviews as a work in the classical tradition of the country house mystery. There's more info available at Bev's website and meantime as guest blogger today she explains the real life inspiration behind her creation of Octavia Dolfini, whose social ambitions lead to murder as midnight's iron tongue tolls....]
Georgina Weldon had three claims to fame: pursuing a scandalous liaison with composer Charles Gounod, posing for a Pear’s Soap portrait, and burdening the English civil court with twenty-five actions in the short space of one year. When I finished reading her biography, I knew I was going to base a character on her wild and wooly personality.
One of my great writing joys is discovering interesting people and other bits of history during my research process. This process can be rather free-floating at times, and that’s how I discovered Georgina. I was scanning the biography shelf at my local library and noticed the cover art of a full-faced young woman gazing pensively from under a wide-brimmed hat fashionable over a century ago. Chin balanced on her hand, peaches-and-cream complexion gracing her cheeks, hair as black as a raven’s wing, she seemed to be assessing the world with a challenging stare. Not your typical Victorian-era young miss. The title announced The Disastrous Mrs. Weldon: the Life, Loves and Lawsuits of a Legendary Victorian by Brian Thompson. I checked the book out and dove in as soon as I reached home.
It happened that I was also deep into plotting the fourth installment of my Baroque Mystery series. Eighteenth-century Venice provides the backdrop for these traditional mysteries that feature singer/sleuth Tito Amato. As exciting as Venice is, I had fallen in love with the idea of crafting a classic country house mystery. I needed to send Tito to an isolated mainland villa to rehearse an opera with a houseful of other singers that would provide a fertile atmosphere for murder. But I knew rehearsing in secret was highly unusual. At the time, composers rehearsed their singers in practice rooms and on the stage of the theater where the opera would take place. They trumpeted their plans to the opera-mad populace, whetting the city’s appetite for the finished spectacle—they didn’t bury themselves in the countryside. Gathering a company of singers in the middle of nowhere would have to hinge on one person, and Georgina gave me some ideas.
Though her father was a lackluster English gentleman of strained means, Georgina always considered herself destined for fame and greatness. She was an uncommonly pretty girl with an energetic personality that gained her entrance to some interesting society. Early on, she caught the eye of painter G. F. Watts who painted the portrait featured on the cover of her biography. Unfortunately, a casual dalliance with the much older artist scandalized the hostess who was entertaining them both and blackened Georgina’s budding reputation. The headstrong girl eventually married Harry Weldon, a provincial Hussar officer with little money and no inheritance to support them. Her hasty marriage cost her the support of her parents—her father cut her off entirely. Georgina responded by plowing in to make a living with her musical skills.
Georgina had studied vocal arts as a girl and was frequently asked to perform at “musical evenings” which provided after-dinner entertainment at typical upper class gatherings. Contemporary reports indicate she possessed a pleasing soprano but was never destined for the professional stage. After failing to make the splash she expected, she opened a music conservatory to train the next generation of English singers. Enter Charles Gounod, wildly popular French composer of Faust and Romeo et Juliette. Fleeing a difficult marriage in Paris, dispirited over criticism of his latest work, Gounod moved to London and was soon installed at Georgina and Harry’s home. Georgina used her considerable energy and promotional skills in establishing Gounod in London and kept the older man comfortable with all the creature comforts he desired, including her still very attractive person. Harry, busy with his own long-term mistress, turned a blind eye. But the situation was too explosive to last long. Gounod finally realized how completely Georgina was using him to advance herself in London’s musical world and society in general. He fled back to his wife in Paris, Harry took off to live his mistress, and Georgina was left alone and nearly penniless. In her anger and humiliation, she lashed out through the courts, seeking redress from everyone she believed had ever treated her wrongly.
Though Georgina’s escapades took place many miles and over a hundred years distant from the setting of the adventure I was planning for Tito, she ended up in the book which was eventually entitled The Iron Tongue of Midnight. With Georgina firmly in mind, I created the character of Octavia Dolfini, wife of a wealthy Venetian iron merchant and relentless social climber. To ape the aristocrats whom they equal in cash if not in social status, Octavia and her husband take an elegant villa near Padua to escape Venice’s hot, mosquito-ridden summer. There Octavia conceives the plan of promoting an opera which would be sure to impress the opera house's aristocratic patrons and gain her entry into their circle. She digs up a moody German composer with plenty of talent but also a shady past that has kept him from being employed elsewhere and fills the villa with singers, including Tito. Everyone involved has a secret or two, so when the corpse of a murdered stranger turns up at midnight, the game’s afoot, as another famous detective would say.
In one of my more fanciful daydreams, I imagine Georgina reading The Iron Tongue of Midnight. I see her in Heaven, reclining on a fluffy white cloud, box of bonbons near at hand. She laughs when Octavia is getting the upper hand on Tito, the composer, and her long-suffering husband, but the smiles turn to frowns when Octavia gets her comeuppance. A thundercloud rolls in bearing Georgina’s attorney. I failed to ask her permission, you see. For my temerity in using her life story for inspiration, a summons will soon be floating down from on high.
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