A Regency puzzle: Troy Chimneys

Margaret Kennedy, Troy Chimneys (1952)

I’ve just finished Troy Chimneys, and already I want to read it again. This is partly to try to puzzle out the chronology, which is confused by a complicated multi-layer structure of diaries and letters bandied back and forth between various generations of different families — but it’s also because the story at the heart of this maze was worth the effort to dig through to it, a touching portrait of one man’s moral struggles.

To add a further complication, this man, Miles Lufton, born to an English clergyman’s family in 1782, thinks of himself as two men: Miles, the part of himself that would be happy to live in Wiltshire and “listen to the nightingale,” and Pronto, the social-climbing MP whose only goal in life is to enrich himself. The title refers to a house that Miles buys with Pronto’s gains with the idea that it can become a retreat for his better self, but this does not turn out as he had expected or hoped, as with so much else in his life. As he writes his memoirs he reflects on how the split in his being arose and how it may be bridged — perhaps by the evolution of a “third man,” one who can witness and transcend the limitations of both Miles and Pronto.

Miles’s life journey is framed by two love stories, one that takes place in his ignorant youth and one that arises as he approaches middle age. Here Kennedy is working with much the same material that occupied Georgette Heyer in her Regency romances, but gives it a more melancholy, reflective spin than those lighthearted concoctions do. Miles is always failing himself and others, and yet I don’t see him as a failure. His struggles resonate with our own, his quest for self-integration is both highly modern and one of the most ancient, archetypal human experiences. The ending is not a conventionally happy one, and yet it is somehow not depressing. By gaining self-knowledge, Miles has also gained a measure of freedom, and so his suffering is not felt to be in vain.

Kennedy’s evocation of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (with some Victorian interludes) is lightly and expertly done. She crafts her language carefully to locate us in the period without sounding archaic. She has no need to throw about Regency slang or refer to details of fashion or etiquette; her characters simply exist in the time that belongs to them, without undue fuss and bother. To appreciate how she does this is yet another reason for rereading.

These are just a few of the thoughts that arose as I read this complex, playful, insightful and challenging novel. I don’t want to give away too many details, because part of the fun of reading is to discover them for yourself. If you venture to do so, be sure to plough through the framing letters at the beginning, which can be rather tough going, and get into Miles’s first Journal. I hope you will be quickly drawn into his story, as I was, and not want to leave.

Back to the Classics – Romance Classic
Classics Club list #53


The Vagabond Vicar: Author interview with Charlotte Brentwood

I don’t often read or review self-published books, but Charlotte Brentwood’s debut novel, The Vagabond Vicar, lured me with its charming cover. Inside, you’ll find a sweet and light romance that is unusual in its focus on a young clergyman who has no time for romance; he’s landed a coveted living in England but really wishes to be serving the poor and needy overseas. How he is won over by an unconventional young lady of the neighborhood makes pleasant escape reading for Regency fans.

I was curious to know more about how these characters came to be and about Charlotte’s path to self-publishing, so she was kind enough to answer some questions from me. Welcome, Charlotte!

ECBR: Everyone who sees your book is wowed by the cover. How did you find that painting? Do you know anything about the artist?

CB: I can’t remember exactly what I was looking for when I found the painting online – it was some sort of research/procrastination. I stumbled across it (Planning the Grand Tour by Emil Brack) and instantly fell in love with it. The characters are exactly as I imagined them, and my vagabond is enthusiastically showing his potential lady where his travels may take him. It also gives the reader a sense of this being a traditional, sweet regency. I hope you like it as much as I do!

Emil Brack was a German artist who worked in the late nineteenth century. He is a “genre painter” in that he focuses on capturing domestic details of life — in this case, from the regency period. I’m very glad to have found him!

Within a short space of time I also found art for the covers for book two and three — coming soon!

Getting into what’s between the covers, how did you start writing this story? What was your inspiration?

I created a vicar character for another book, but he wasn’t very interesting and I soon gave up on that book. While writing something else, the character of William began forming in my mind. He kept telling me tales of his mercy missions in the seedy parts of London. He told me about how he was given a living in a small village, but that he would much rather be sailing the seas to adventures in exotic lands. I was moved by his compassion, his earnestness, and his heart. I knew I had to give him his own story.

I love your main characters, William, the earnest young vicar, and Cecelia, the impetuous painter. What was the process of developing these characters like? Did they spring into your mind fully formed, or did it take you a while to find out who they were?

William’s character was already well-established in my mind when I began to seriously write the book, but it took me a while to find out about his past and figure out what his motivations were. I set out to create a vicar who was not only true to his convictions and compassionate, but also heroic, bold and downright swoon-worthy. I think this quote from a reader sums it up nicely: “I’ve never been one to ‘fall’ for a religious man, but William Brook is likely to get fans fluttering and cheeks flushing. Dare I say he’s a strong contender against the famous (and my literary love) Mr. Rochester?”

Cecilia came to me almost fully formed as well. I knew she had to be the bright, shining foil to William’s serious, intense existence. They both dwell in other realities – his focus is on helping the undercurrent of society, while she lives in an imagined world of colour and light. It seemed obvious she would be an artist. She is pulled back down to earth by the need to marry, and her mother’s determination to see her settled within a titled family.

After reading a number of different Regencies, I have the feeling that they exist in a sort of parallel universe rather than trying to exactly reproduce the social conditions of the era, which are admittedly very limiting for an author. What are some of the ways that you perhaps stretched the bounds of historical accuracy, in the interest of a good story?

I haven’t changed any major historical facts (as far as I know!) but I did invent the setting of Amberley and all of the surrounding area, based on other villages in that corner of Shropshire. In regards to every day activities and social interactions, I have again tried to be faithful but I haven’t dwelled on some of the nastier aspects of life two hundred years ago — things like the lack of sanitation. I’d like to think that the hero and heroine smell good but chances are that might not have been the case! Where, after exhaustive research, I couldn’t find a particular detail about society or domestic life I have had to fill in the gaps.

On the other hand, part of the fun of a historical romance is that it does give the feeling of being in a different time and place. What historical details did you most enjoy incorporating in your story?

The restrictions which society placed on the respectable classes make for great romantic subject matter. Then there are entertaining events to incorporate such as balls and card parties, and I had great fun creating a harvest festival (fete), during which pivotal events play out. Of course, I love imagining all the clothes and hairstyles — I love the thought of a heart in turmoil beneath an elegant cravat and waistcoat.

You had a hard time getting an agent to take on the book to sell to a traditional publisher, although you received a lot of praise for your writing. What do you think was really going on there?

The common thread with the agents was that they were unable to pigeon-hole my book clearly into a genre. Apparently it’s not straight historical romance, nor is it a literary historical. They said they wouldn’t be able to tell editors what shelf it would sit on in a bookstore. The funny thing is that there other books like mine sitting on the shelves — most often in general fiction. An agent even said to me that she agreed there is an audience for the book (herself included) but editors are being so picky that she just couldn’t take a chance.

It seems that if something doesn’t fit nicely into the wider commercial genres, it doesn’t get a look in. I would say my book is a traditional regency romance, but as that’s apparently not “fashionable” right now, they pretend the genre doesn’t exist.

Once you decided to self-publish, what were some of the challenges you faced? How did you meet them?

Obviously there is the challenge of doing all the work a publisher would have done for you — getting people to edit your work, designing a cover, formatting for the various different platforms and figuring out taxes and payment (which is a challenge for someone outside the US). And then the biggest challenge, which is not unique to indies: marketing.

You also have to take the huge leap of faith required in order to launch your product into the world without the sanction of the literary powers-that-be, hoping it will be well-received. It’s scary!

I’ve just done the best I can, with the help of my friends and the writing community. I hope the book is just as good as something which would come from the big five, but readers will be the judge of that.

Are you writing another book? Based on your experience so far, what have you learned? What might you try to do differently next time?

I am working on the two follow-up books to The Vagabond Vicar in tandem, as the stories of Amy Miller and John Barrington are related (though separate). I already have a lot of scenes drafted for each and I’m about to knuckle down to plot out all the details. I hope to get these stories out in the coming year.

Now that I know the processes involved, I hope to be more organised in terms of planning all the elements required before and after release. I hope that I am also a better writer than I was three years ago when I began the Vicar, so hopefully the process of writing these next books will be quicker and the stories just as good if not better.

What are some of your favorite books, inside or outside the Regency genre? What authors do you admire, and why?

Unsurprisingly, I like books which are similar to mine — set in history with strong romantic elements but with a focus on character development and overcoming personal obstacles, rather than artificial conflict and lust. I have been an Austen fan since I was a teenager (that’s where this all started really) and I also love Elizabeth Gaskell, Georgette Heyer, Louisa May Alcott, Carla Kelly, Catherine Marshall, George Eliot, and LM Montgomery.

Authors I admire who have lived more recently (or producing today) include Patricia Veryan, Sarah M Eden, Candice Hern, Jennifer Moore Donna Hatch, Julie Klassen, and some Austen-related literature such as Abigail Reynolds.

Thank you for hosting me Lory!

And thank you, Charlotte, for stopping by. It was very interesting to learn more about how this book came to be.


New Zealand author Charlotte Brentwood developed serious crushes on a series of men from age fifteen: Darcy, Knightley, Wentworth and Brandon. A bookworm and scribbler for as long as she can remember, Charlotte always dreamed of sharing her stories with the world. Upon earning a degree in communication studies, she was seduced by the emerging digital world and has since worked with the web and in marketing. When she’s not toiling at her day job, writing or procrastinating on the Internet, Charlotte can be found snuggling with her cat Sophie, warbling at the piano, sipping a hot chocolate, or enjoying the great outdoors. To learn more, visit her website: http://www.charlottebrentwood.com.

A Regency Sketchbook: Mrs Hurst Dancing

For my next (and possibly last) Austen in August contribution, I wanted to let readers know about a lovely book I chanced upon through this post at Charlotte’s Library: Mrs Hurst Dancing and Other Scenes from Regency Life, 1812-1823 (Victor Gollancz, 1981). This reproduction of two volumes of sketchbooks by a young lady of Jane Austen’s era provides an unusual glimpse into the daily life of an English country house of modest size.

The artist, Diana Sperling (about whom little is known, and who apparently abandoned art upon her marriage in 1834), has a delightfully unconventional and unstuffy approach to her sketches of family and friends. Slippery grass, recalcitrant donkeys, electrifying machines, lovelorn brothers, pesky flies that need to be “murdered” by maids standing on windowsills — these are just some of the subjects that inspired her, with charming results.

Diana’s artistic gifts are of the naive variety; her figures are not anatomically convincing, and she tends to make their faces very small and hide them behind large hats. But the liveliness and sheer fun of her compositions makes up for this. An introduction by Gordon Mingay gives the historical context, with brief notes opposite each picture (reproduced at their original size, and, as in the sketchbooks, on the right side of each spread).

We often read in nineteenth-century novels about young ladies industriously drawing and sketching. Here is a rare opportunity to see what a talented member of this legion of amateur artists produced, and to experience some of the forgotten details of their lives. Mrs Hurst Dancing is out of print, but used copies can be fairly inexpensive; check your library, too. For anyone interested in the era, it’s really worth seeking out.