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October 17, 2013

Life with Lady Emily and Her Creator, Tasha Alexander


The past is a foreign country, as L.P. Hartley famously observed in THE GO BETWEEN. But unlike other exotic destinations, it’s one you don’t have to leave home to visit. All you need is the right kind of passport: historical fiction...

The ability to transport the reader through time as well as place is one of the reasons the genre has always enthralled me, and now --- being married to historical novelist Tasha Alexander --- I’m doubly fortunate: Not only do I love reading her finished books, but I get to watch them being created. It’s fascinating to see a bygone era being reconstructed before my eyes --- with its delicate tapestry of distinctive clothes, food, technology, vocabulary, class distinctions and social conventions --- but that’s only half the story, because the driving force of any novel is really its protagonist. In Tasha’s case, of course, that’s the wonderful Lady Emily. And that begs the question: Living in the present-past with Tasha-Emily, how much are these two captivating ladies alike?

I actually encountered her fictional heroine before I met my wife, and it’s impossible to read her long-ago debut, AND ONLY TO DECEIVE, without being struck by Lady Emily’s vibrantly independent spirit. This is certainly something Emily shares with her creator; anyone who’s sufficiently ill-advised to attempt to control Tasha will find themselves finishing a very distant second! Another common characteristic is their tenacious thoroughness. Tasha is a trained historian, so like Emily at the start of an investigation, she stops at nothing to uncover the relevant facts when she’s beginning the research for a new book. Our apartment in Chicago is chock full of all kinds of primary source material --- diaries, memoires, contemporary maps, recipes, catalogues, records from balls and parties, architectural plans, financial papers from wealthy estates, to list but a fraction. I remember being particularly struck by the incredible feats of Victorian Englishwomen, for example, when Tasha was reading accounts of their exploits in the Ottoman empire in preparation for TEARS OF PEARL. Sometimes the truth really is stranger than fiction!

Tasha and Emily are both inherently curious about the world around them, so it’s no surprise that museums are another area where their passions intersect. I think they’d both happily live the rest of their lives in the British Museum or the Louvre, given half a chance. And when Tasha was taken on a behind-the-scenes tour of the old British Library reading room before writing A CRIMSON WARNING, I was seriously worried that her guide would be unable to make her leave! Plus, they both also have a deep love of learning --- Emily’s odyssey to master ancient Greek, for example, was mirrored by Tasha’s enrolment in an ancient Egyptian class at Yale. I’m just glad it wasn’t me who had to draw all those fiddly little hieroglyphs!

It’s said that travel broadens the mind, so it’s no surprise that both ladies are keen explorers. Emily’s adventures have taken her (so far!) from London and her English country estate to France, Austria, Italy and the Ottoman empire. Tasha --- who always visits the places she writes about --- has followed tenaciously in Emily’s footsteps. She studied in London while she was a student at Notre Dame, and has returned to the city many times since then. Last summer she spent weeks visiting a dozen or so of England’s finest stately homes as background for BEHIND THE SHATTERED GLASS. And her other notable research trips have included an extended stay in Istanbul (since you can’t go back to Constantinople...), a summer spent housesitting in Normandy (which provided the inspiration for DANGEROUS TO KNOW), and temporarily relocating the family to Venice while writing DEATH IN THE FLOATING CITY. Like Emily, when abroad Tasha loves to explore new places on foot. I went with her on the research trip for next year’s book --- I’m not saying where! --- and I think the most ground we covered in a single day was 12 miles. That was the only occasion I can remember when Tasha may not have swapped her 21st-century footwear for Emily’s deliciously stylish Victorian boots!

These are some of the ways in which Tasha and Emily are similar, and there are plenty more --- a love of reading, a talent for code breaking, and an appreciation of fine clothes, to name just a handful --- but what about differences? There are a few. Smoking, for example. Tasha can’t abide it, so there are no cigars in our house to accompany her occasional glass of after-dinner port. But I think the most telling difference is in regard to horses. While Emily delights in taking Bucephalus for early morning rides along Rotten Row in London, Tasha would rather fly a fighter jet. As long as she didn’t have to kill anyone --- she just likes fast planes!

How Lady Emily would respond to the roar of an F16, on the other hand, is a question only Tasha would be able to answer...

     --- Written by novelist Andrew Grant (Tasha’s husband)