Sisterhood, a Brother’s Betrayal, Women’s Art, and a what might be a Romance

(but the main character isn’t really sure)

When Celia needs to leverage her title and marry immediately to avoid their family’s impending financial failure, she conspires with her cousins to find a husband for her and security for them.

Blurb:

Quietly competent Celia ran her father’s Irish barony for years, but after his death her younger brother inherited the title, shut down Castle Killyreigh, and brought Celia to England to live with her aunt’s family. Celia retreated into her art and now suffers nervous attacks.

When the 1820 Season begins, her aunt stuns Celia with the announcement that she must find a husband, immediately. After discovering that the family is on the verge of ruin, Celia agrees to leverage her pedigree to contract an advantageous marriage, so she will have the social position to sponsor her three young adult cousins. She vows to overcome her shyness, her scruples, and marry, in order to protect the only family she has left.

However, just when Celia finds her social footing, her brother interferes once again. He introduces the unknown Lord Edmund, who immediately embarks on a strangely possessive courtship; frightening away respectable suitors and intimidating Celia – but when his gossip campaign ensnares her middle cousin, he goes too far. Huddled in the breakfast room over iced biscuits to review their limited options, Celia, her cousins, and friends name themselves The Bonnet Brigade, appoint a Madam General, and strategize to escape the net of the London marriage mart; before they are ensnared forever, Lord Edmund makes his next move, or financial ruin descends.

I am extremely honored that The Domestic Diplomat has been selected as a finalist in the WFWA Rising Star Award. This manuscript has since been re-named The Bonnet Brigade.

The Bonnet Brigade: details

Celia is an embroidery artist, and in some of the scenes she is working on shading the feathers on a bird.

Main Themes

This book sinks more deeply into a few themes.

  • Sisterhood or “Girl Power”
    In 1820’s England, it feels like young women don’t have many choices or much power of their own. But when siblings, cousins, and friends begin to share their problems and strategize, new options open before them.
  • Family, Loyalty, and Betrayal
    When financial crisis strike from two sides at once, two of Celia’s relatives make some questionable choices.
    At first, Celia’s brother Clarence seems to be an absent land-owner and a fashionable fop, but Celia both depends on him and constantly forgives him because she remembers her childhood playmate. But is Clarence the villain or the victim? And is there a point of betrayal which even Celia cannot forgive — and should she forgive him?
    In the opening of the book, Celia’s Aunt Thompson is pushing her girls into making a brilliant society marriage. But as the story progresses, her own painful reasoning develops. Celia, who has managed a household of her own and has some emotional distance, is able to observe and empathize with her aunt, but gradually Aunt Thompson alienates each of her daughters. Did she go too far?
    These story arcs have development and intrigue, but no neat and tidy conclusions.
  • Friendship, Love & Respect
    This is a slow-simmering love story, as Celia and Peter walk a fine line between friendship, attraction, and when being respectful is giving the other person space or when it means stepping in.
kingfisher embroidery jessica devine
Kingfisher by Jessica Devine, stitched by Christy Matheson

Celia is a watercolor and embroidery artist. Women’s relationship to their art, and their “right” to take time for themselves to develop their artistic work, is explored throughout the book. (This relates to the discussion of whether typical women’s work is truly art; Celia and I are considering that a given.) In this draft, we understand more about how the other women in Celia’s life have influenced that discussion; in the next book, there is a deeper exploration of Celia’s legacy for women younger than herself.

Status Update:

The Bonnet Brigade is complete. My agent and I are in the process of sending it out to publishers.

What is your inspiration for this book?

The Bonnet Brigade and The Domestic Diplomat duology is the result of several ideas that were rolling around in my head together, until eventually they snowballed enough momentum to become a story.

About six years ago, my husband had a conference in Dublin and we brought the whole family along. It was my third trip to Ireland, but this time, with homeschool children in tow, we focused on museums about Irish history and also going to castles. I couldn’t help but think about the centuries of tension between the English and the Irish, and the liminal space created by this class of people who were neither one nor the other. Imagine moving to England, I thought, when you were technically part of the very highest class of English people, and yet you yourself felt distinctly foreign in every way that mattered.

Some time later, I was reading Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion, in which the charming character Lord Dolphinton is an Irish aristocrat. Heyer does not go near Anglo-Irish complexities in the book, but it brought to my mind how I would like to play with a similar character. (Which, of course, became incredibly un-similar.)

When the idea of this series came to me, and I started to explore the implications of Mr Thompson’s financial failure on each of his daughters’ lives, I actually had more of a clear idea for the younger girls. As I thought out their stories, I developed a clear vision of adult Celia and Peter, and the roles that they would play both in their family and in society as a whole. So when I really went back to develop their story, it was from the unique perspective of knowing where they would end up, and what would create their experiences to get them to that place? I knew that Celia was going to be one of those hostesses who has the magic of creating a space where everyone feels welcome and safe. (I’m not telling you what Peter becomes!) So I thought about what might go in to becoming someone like that. It would be someone who had both internal confidence, but also who understood the experience of being an outsider.

Reading a corny Regency romance poured the final paste into my aggregate. I suddenly had a vision spring full into my head, and I knew I wanted to take all these tropes… but twist them. The dark garden at a ball. The gossip-fueled marriage trap. The hero who turns out to be someone different. The dramatic rescue.

But I knew that in my version, that the hero was going to be the opposite of the classic “man’s man,” and that the real rescue was going to be in the hands of the female main character….

Duology: The Domestic Diplomat

The Domestic Diplomat contains the more of Celia and Peter’s love story, and the complexities of the relationship between two people who both are used to quietly taking responsibility for everyone around them.

It continues with many of the same underlying themes — family ties, loyalty & betrayal, women’s power in a misogynistic society.

Opening tidbit

3rd April, 1820

The Honorable Miss Celia Westhaven stood, wilted, in her bedroom in this year’s rented townhouse. She was supposed to be dressing for the evening. No need to shilly-shally; it didn’t matter whether she felt like a grand London ball, her aunt said they were going and Celia went. There was no call to feel a megrim coming on simply because she’d had a conversation she didn’t like. 

Celia stepped towards her dressing table, but her eyes skittered to the watercolor squeezed between the mirror and window. She could feel the sun-warmed flagstones, see the weathered turret rising on the left, smell the yellow jasmine spilling over the portcullis. Just looking at it, she felt mellower, softer, safer.

Castle Killyreigh. 

Home. 

Celia shook her head briskly. “It is just a ball, my pretty weeny poppet, just another ball,” she began in Irish, but trailed into silence. Usually it comforted to chatter in the style of her Maimeo – her father’s mother – but tonight it only reminded her that her family was gone.

And now she was going to lose her second family.

She let her mind wander into the painting. Celia had painted it back when her brother had first brought her to Aunt Thompson’s home, using wash after wash of Hooker’s green and cobalt and India yellow for the greenery around the castle. She had never redone it, although her technical skills had improved with so much leisure to practice. After three years in England, she wasn’t sure if her inner eye could remember the colors, if she could capture that particular tone of verdure. 

Celia turned away, pouring warm water from the china pitcher to the wide basin, dipping the sponge, spending an extra moment soaking her aching eyes. She wished it were that easy to wash away the tension with her aunt – while she was at it, she would wash away the whole Season, with all the matrons perched like falcons behind their undulating fans.

Her towel stilled, Celia peered back at the painting, as though she could see inside to the big drafty hall, her own little office, her mother sitting with her needlework –

No. No, it was not home. Not ever again. 

By June, Aunt Thompson said. By June, Celia must be married. Apparently her welcome was over, and she was losing the Thompsons, too.

Celia wrang out the sponge, straightened her towel, and glanced back. Like a magnet, she could not resist staring at Castle Killyreigh.

Filled with sudden fire, Celia marched across the room, wrestled the heavy frame down from the wall, staggered slightly, and then shoved it under the bed. She had to rearrange some pillows and boxes, and had a moment’s fear of damaging the art – but what did it matter? It was just her own painting of a place that mattered only to her. 

Celia rose to her feet, brushed the dust off her hands, and began to dress.