The English Wife by Lauren Willig is full of intrigue and suspense. It is a refreshing change from all the recent Gone Girl look alikes, and instead is part mystery, part love story, and part family drama. This historical crime fiction novel involves murder, scandals, and secrets.
The Gilded Age is highlighted between the years 1894 in England to 1899 in New York. Bayard, the son of a Knickerbocker prominent family returns after a three-year absence with his English wife, Annabelle aka Georgie. Their supposed whirlwind romance is shattered at the opening of their Twelfth Night Ball to highlight the new manor. Bayard is discovered with a dagger in his chest, while Annabelle appears to have drowned in the Hudson.
The story should remind readers of the Clue Game with an abundance of suspects and motives. There is Bay’s cousin Anne, who could be having an affair, his sister Janie who found the body, his mother who is omnipresent, and his wife Georgie who has disappeared. As rumors swirl Janie, decides to work with a reporter, Burke, to save the reputation of her brother and sister-in-law to uncover the truth.
Elise Cooper: Why the Gilded Age?
Lauren Willig: I am interested in the fundamental conflicts of the Gilded Age. There was this culture clash between New Yorkers of Dutch descent and the new money that came after the Civil War. The “old” Dutch families looked down on the nouveau as flashy. They did not want to accept them, but imitated them to keep up.
EC: You include real life people like Alva Vanderbilt?
LW: She was a trendsetter who had this famous ball, considered the embodiment of New York social life. She actually got a divorce when it was not well received for women. I wrote into the plot how one of my characters, Anne, Bay’s cousin, got a scandalous divorce and based it on Alva.
EC: You also delve into women’s issues?
LW: Women were supposed to not deal with the harsh realities of the world and were never supposed to be involved with politics. They married to gain power and money. Their duty was to preside over the home and only yielded power in the social arena. Women in the upper-class circle did not go out and work. On the other hand, they could volunteer in charitable organizations as my character Janie did. This is how they gained power and control over their lives as well as over a society that wanted to regulate them to the domestic sphere.
EC: The mother, Mrs. Van Duyvil reminded me of the stepmother in Cinderella?
LW: She was cold, controlling, impersonal, and distant. She was only concerned with the lineage, money, and power. She represented the old New York attitude. I put in the quote of her telling Annabelle that her heritage went back to Revolutionary times to prove how important her family was. Of course, Annabelle replies that her lineage goes back to the Magna Carta. I guess that was her in your face moment to her mother-in-law.
EC: It seems there was another conflict in the book between the aristocracy of England and that in America?
LW: There were different norms in each country. Through Annabelle people can see that in England they had their estates, where the power lies. The aristocratic world is a rural world. While the Van Duyvils show that in America many of the aristocracy lived in the urban world. Their country estates were mainly for show and for them to pretend to be the same as an English aristocrat. Another difference is that it was acceptable for an English gentleman to have interests in art, poetry, and books. There is also the difference in attitudes where in England it was common for a gentleman to have mistresses, while in America that would not fly.
EC: Was the relationship between Georgie and Bay, a marriage of convenience?
LW: Neither viewed it as a marriage of convenience. They genuinely loved each other and connected. They knew each other so well they could communicate without words. Because he was his mother’s darling and grew up in a pampered world he admired Georgie’s attitude of speaking her mind and being headstrong. She was dependent on him for security. The problem arose when they found out each was withholding secrets from the other, hiding something. There were these implied lies based on the omission of information. Georgie first saw Bay as the Prince Charming and he thinks of her as the missing heiress.
EC: Is that why you included the Shakespeare play the Twelfth Night?
LW: The play is all about misunderstanding. It has everyone thinking someone is someone else. This plays into the secrets the characters are keeping from each other. There are a lot of people masquerading as someone else. This is similar to this novel’s story where it delves into what the world has done to them. The real heart of my story is that all the characters are forced by the world they live in to try to be people they are not.
EC: There was also symbolism in Janie’s full name Genevieve?
LW: I wanted to show there were two sides to her. Her mother reduces her from Genevieve to Janie. The name Genevieve is based on the Saint who was the protector of Paris from Attila the Hun, someone who was very powerful. But Janie is considered a childish name who is seen as invisible and taught to prize self-control over sentiment. Her mother is always trying to squash her and attempts to lock her in this gilded cage. But Janie grows throughout the story and becomes more of her own person.
EC: The cousin Anne plays a role in the story but I am not sure if she is someone who should be liked or disliked?
LW: She grew up on the fringes of aristocratic society. Because of her life situation she was forced to live with Mrs.Van Duyvil, her horrible aunt. Your comparison to her fits well with the Cinderella story because Anne is told she has no place in this world. Like Cinderella Anne is beautiful and charming. Mrs. Van Duyvil treated Janie and Anne as her pawns.
EC: Can you give a heads up about your next book projects?
LW: In the fall of 2018 I am collaborating with authors Karen White and Beatriz Williams. Although we do not have a proper title yet we do know that it is set on the last voyage of the Lusitania. It goes back and forth between the perspective of someone in the present day and two characters on the ship. It will have intrigue, romance, and espionage. In the summer of 2019 I will have a novel out that is set in Barbados during the early 19th Century. It will be about a relationship between a slave owner and his neighbor’s slave. I hope to explore what slavery did to this normal relationship where they had children and loved each other, as she became his defacto wife.