Eloisa James knows her dukes, her earls, and her lords — and how to surprise her readers.
The best-selling historical romance author (a pen name for English literature professor Mary Bly) has been entertaining readers since the early 2000s, and she recently revealed that they won’t have to wait long for the next two installments in her Wildes of Lindow series. The series’ second book, Too Wilde to Wed, debuts in May, while James just moved up the third book, Born to be Wilde — originally slated for 2019 — to July 31 of this year.
With this sudden surprise announcement, EW caught up with James to get all the swoon-inducing details on Born to be Wilde, as well as an exclusive excerpt. (Never fear, it’s spoiler-free.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Because we haven’t even read book 2 yet, we really don’t have any inkling what book 3 will be about — can you give us a tease?
ELOISA JAMES: Sure. The whole idea of the Wildes was because romance themes have to come out of what’s going on now. These days I was really thinking a lot about celebrity culture. The Georgian period was the first time they could actually have a celebrity culture that could be shared across England, because prints were available inexpensively for the first time. The second book is also about celebrity culture, Too Wilde to Wed, and the third one is a bit of a turn. One of the main things we’re talking about now is diversity, and Parth, the hero of the third book, is half Indian. I wanted to have a hero who wasn’t just totally white and aristocratic, and that was a lot of fun. He’s a self-made business man. What was happening with many children at that point was, say a squire or a young second, third, fourth son of an aristocrat would go over to India with the East India company, marry an Indian woman, but then they would send their biracial children home to be raised in England. So they have lots of records of those children. So his parents sent him to the Duke of Lindow, to the Wilde family, and then they died of a fever. He was raised with the Wilde family, so he is a Wilde, but he has a more interesting background.
Is this the first time you’ve written a non-white hero or heroine?
Yep. It’s very difficult. Specifically, there were plenty of people of color in England in the Georgian and Regency periods. I’ve looked up all the scholarship. I’ve read the primary sources on it. There was a very famous butler, for example, but I tend to write about aristocrats because I grew up on a farm and I’m the daughter of a poet, and lack of money totally doesn’t interest me. So I use aristocracy as a shorthand for money.
There’s an ongoing discussion about sensitivity readers and own voices; how did you navigate that as you were writing?
I don’t have much of an own voice when it comes to all the men I’ve been voicing for years. They kind of all turn into versions of me. My men grovel much longer than most men I know would do. But in this case I’m an academic, so I talked to a friend of mine who is an academic from India, and she helped me plan a whole background and gave me books, and then she read it. I feel it’s more like a research read. I needed the background. I needed the research, and I needed to figure it out. Because I did try to write a short story with an Indian heroine once. I got about halfway through, and I was like, “This is just not working. I can’t have a colonialist aristocratic white guy with her.” And then I called up the friend, and she was like, “You can’t do that, you’re not able to negotiate that.” But here, in this case, because he was raised in England and he came over at age 5, it allowed me to populate my book with someone of a different race, but not feel so like I’m intersecting a major historical trend here, like colonialism.
The Wilde family allows for so many great punny titles. How much fun are you having coming up with those? What’s the worst or best Wilde pun you’ve thought of?
I have to say I wasn’t quite sure about Born to be Wilde. Because you know the Steppenwolf album cover? My dad had one of those. But we decided no one really remembers Steppenwolf very much. I don’t even know what the music is like. And that one made so much sense because he was actually born in a foreign country, but like all adopted children he really was born to be part of that family. So that’s a statement about adoption as much as anything else. But yeah, it’s fun. We came up with some really stupid ones. I love it.
You’re a literature professor, so does the family name owe a debt to Oscar Wilde?
He’s one of my heroes, so that played a role in it. I’ve read his plays over and over and over and over. It’s very hard to write any kind of funny conversation, and the only way to do it is to read people who are funny and think about how they did it. So I read film scripts, I read plays, I read TV shows, I read anything I can.
My favorite thing about your books is your use of literary allusions, specifically Shakespeare-related things. Is that something that comes naturally to you since that’s your other job, or are you actively seeking out ways to incorporate those references? Do they sneak up on you more often than not?
It just sneaks up. The lucky thing about what I do is, I teach plays only, really, so I teach people who are walking and talking in the past. I’m trying to create a situation where people are walking and talking on the page. Their knowledge of Shakespeare was incredibly thorough. So when what I’m teaching during the day leaks on to the page, I kind of just let it go. I never really think about, “Oh, I want to have more Shakespeare in there,” or anything like that, but it was very useful to me in terms of talking about celebrity culture because, for example, in Too Wilde to Wed, which is out in the end of May, I have this celebrity crisis. In that one, North, who’s the brother, comes back from war, and his fiancé who ran away during their betrothal party is now hired and living in the nursery taking care of a child that most people think is his. There is this enormous, enormous scandal driven by these pictures, which are all portraying him as a Shakespearean rapist, basically. It allowed me to get the celebrity thing and the Shakespeare and tie it to what they were actually doing in the period, which was, it was common for them to portray people as Shakespeare characters in shorthand.
People don’t think of Shakespeare as a popular author for the masses anymore, but he was. What would he think about romance novels?
Shakespeare was nothing if not a pragmatist. He was an absolute pragmatist. He wrote best-sellers, essentially. Titus Andronicus was one of his first hits, and it’s the Coen Brothers of the day. It’s insanely bloody. And then he was like, “Okay, now I’m going for sex,” and he wrote Romeo and Juliet, which has got the first wildly desirous woman to ever appear on the stage. He understood very much that you go to the edge in order to get a best-seller. I think he would look at genre fiction overall and he would completely understand the parameters of it. Writing genre fiction has helped me enormously in the classroom because I can see the challenges that he faced. I can’t meet them the way he did, but the challenge of writing genre fiction is someone knows how it’s going to end, right? In romance you know how it’s going to end, but you have to make it interesting in the middle. You have to make it original. You have to make it exciting and different and surprising. There has to be that moment where the reader thinks maybe this won’t work out. At the same time, you deliciously know that it will. And Shakespeare had to do exactly the same thing because he wasn’t an original person when it came to his plots. He would steal them. They called him a plagiarist, but we wouldn’t because he didn’t steal words, he stole plots.
Do you find the hats of academic and romance novelist very different, or is there more in common than we’d expect, particularly because you study literature?
There’s a lot in common in that it’s helped me teach. Overall, we look to literature to find out ways to live. Literature can change the way a nation thinks about war; it can change huge ideas. Romance in particular is more about how you live. I get letters from women who were abused, for example, and they say, “I realize I don’t have to put up with it.” Those are smaller things than what literature aims at, but I think in their own way just as important.
You’ve said before that you kept your pen name/identity as a writer secret until you had tenure. Do you feel there’s been any shift since then? Like, if you were starting out now, might you feel more free to not have to keep it secret?
The image of romance has improved a lot. It’s being taught everywhere. Princeton and Duke have had conferences on romance fiction. I have to say, from a practical point of view, if any young tenure-track professors are reading this, I’d advise keeping it private until you get tenure, simply because it’s a lot of work being a tenured professor. People would rightly think maybe this person is more interested in writing than being a professor. Whereas in my case, I’m actually more of a professor than a writer, but I think people might query that.
Romance, even in the last few months, is starting to get much less condescending coverage from mainstream media outlets. What do you make of that, and for someone who’s been in the game awhile, does it change anything for you?
Well, no, it doesn’t change anything for me as a writer. I mean, it’s nice to get attention, but it doesn’t really matter. I’ve had such a long career that I have to constantly be thinking, “What are people interested in now?” I have to ground myself in ideas that are happening now — so diversity, consent is a huge one in romance right now, and one that’s interesting and hard to negotiate. So I can’t worry about the fact that the New York Times has hired a romance columnist, though I think it’s fantastic. More power to them. But I have to be writing to the things that I think are interesting in the culture right now, and see how I can negotiate them and make them escapist and fun.
Romance novelists have been talking about consent for a long time. Is it something you feel you’ll tackle more explicitly going forward?
Romance is an industry run by women and run for women in large part, and so consent came up like three or four years ago and started changing the way we think about things. The book that’s coming out, Too Wilde to Wed, I had set it up before where she comes back and she’s a governess. And I love governess novels. They’re so much fun. But I’m talking about a hierarchal employment situation, and it took a really long time to negotiate that. Negotiating the fact that she has to really consent audibly over and over again, while making it clear she’s in control of the situation, even though his father is paying her salary. It was an interesting paradigm. I handled it for the first time with Seven Minutes in Heaven because I was going to have a kidnapping scene. If you read the scene, I wrote the first one where he’s like, “Yeah, I’m kidnapping you, we’re leaving town.” And in the final version he’s like, “I’m kidnapping you, but if you want to I’ll turn the carriage around.” That is not what my hero would have done in 2000, but I’ve been writing so long that when those first books came out, those guys were just balls to the wall, do whatever they want, and that’s what a reader wanted at that point, and that was fun and sexy. That’s not fun and sexy anymore. But that’s the thing about writing, it changes all the time, it’s a constant learning process.
Excerpt from Born to be Wilde, by Eloisa James
Lindow Castle, Cheshire
Country seat of the Duke of Lindow
June 4, 1780
Miss Lavinia Gray considered herself reasonably brave. In her twenty-one years, she had been presented to both an English and a French queen without losing her composure. She had squeaked, but not screamed, after a close encounter with an exceedingly large bear. Perhaps “bear” was an exaggeration. One could call it a dog, but only if a dog had huge bear-like fangs and lunged from the shadows.
Screaming would not have been uncalled for.
There was also the time she had waded into a lake rumored to be inhabited by leeches. She had shuddered but soldiered on every time something soft bumped her legs.
Hovering in the corridor outside a gentleman’s bedchamber?
This was a whole new level of uneasiness. She’d prefer to swim in a leechy lake up to her neck than knock on the door before her.
The ironic thing was that she’d soothed many a young gentleman who had fallen to his knees to offer marriage, although now she realized she should have been even kinder. Drumming up one’s nerves to propose was terrifying.
That’s what she was about to do.
A silent shriek went through her head. How in heaven’s name had she come to this?
She shook off the unhelpful thought and tried to muster her courage. Generally speaking, she found dresses to be a formidable suit of armor, useful in marshalling courage, but even one of her best Parisian gowns wasn’t helping. Champagne-tinted silk clung to her figure and then opened into frothy ruffles at the hem; modest padding at the hips emphasized the swell of her breasts and made her waist look smaller.
Ordinarily, she would have felt invulnerable in it, but at the moment, she felt only self-conscious dread.
The problem was that Parth Sterling had never shown any sign of being attracted to her figure—or any other part of her, for that matter. Just last night he had entered the drawing room, nodded to her, and promptly moved to the other side of the room.
After not seeing her for two years.
Bring on the leechy lake.
“You have no choice,” her cousin Diana had fiercely insisted, not ten minutes ago. “You must marry Parth.”
Lavinia took a deep breath, forcing herself to stand still and not dash down the corridor. Hands clenched at her sides, she firmed her lips and took a step closer to the door.
She needed Parth, not only because he was the richest bachelor in the kingdom, but because he—well, he got things done.
He fixed things.
Problems of all sorts.
The thought stiffened her backbone, and before she could stop herself again, she knocked. And waited.
A swooning sense of relief came over her when no one opened the door.
She would return to Diana and report that Parth Sterling unaccountably hadn’t been in his chamber waiting for a marriage proposal.
He was standing in the open doorway, staring at her there in the dark corridor.
She managed a wavering smile. “Hello!”
“Jesus,” he barked, and then looked both ways. “What in the hell are you doing out here?”
Before she could answer, he grabbed her by the elbow, pulled her inside, and slammed the door.
Earlier, talking to Diana, it had all made sense, in a cracked sort of way: Parth was unmarried, and Parth was a problem-solver.
But faced with Parth? Who was taller than most men, broader in his chest, with thick hair, skin like honey, dark eyes…
He looked like a pirate. Diana’s words. She herself would have said a king. A pirate king.
“I find myself in a predicament,” Lavinia said, the words tripping over each other. “Well, more than a predicament, a problem. Yes, problem is the right word for it.” Usually she had no trouble speaking, but now it felt as if sentences were knocking about in her head.
“It must be an appalling sort of problem, to bring you to my door.” His voice wasn’t chilly, precisely, but she caught a distinct ironic edge.
Oh God, her sins were coming home to roost.
“I used to call you Appalling Parth,” she said, clearing her throat. “It was merely in jest, and I apologize.”
“To be sure, a jest,” he agreed, his voice indifferent. “Whatever the case, why are you here, Miss Sterling?”
“You used to call me Lavinia. In fact, you did seconds ago.”
“Seconds ago I was shocked to find a lady standing at my bedchamber door. It seems we were both guilty of a lapse in decorum.”
Well, that was blunt. Lavinia twisted her fingers together, trying to work out how to broach the subject of marriage. This was a disaster. She ought to leave. She told herself to leave, quite firmly. Her feet remained rooted to the carpet.
Parth raised a brow. “Well?” he said, when she had apparently stood in silence too long. “What can I do for you, Miss Sterling?”
Before she thought twice, her eyes flew to his. Yes, she had teased him. But she didn’t believe he hated her.
“Lavinia,” he corrected, his eyes softening. “That was graceless of me, because you are clearly in extremis. What can I do to help?”
The humiliating thing was that the mere sight of him made her heart pound. Never mind that he was monstrously arrogant and would make a terrible husband. From the moment she’d first seen him, two summers before, he’d done something to her. He aggravated her. He infuriated her. He intrigued her. She hated that the most because he had made it clear from the first time he saw her that he considered her trivial, silly, and intellectually inferior.
Why in God’s name had she allowed Diana to talk her into this?
She cleared her throat. “I was wondering if you had made any plans for marriage.”
“Because,” Lavinia said, propelled forward by the horrible narrative that she and Diana had devised. “I am…I am…”
She couldn’t do it.
She tried again. “It’s just that I thought—”
“Are you offering to marry me?” His voice rasped. “Bloody hell, Lavinia—are you proposing marriage?”
“Something like that,” she admitted.
She had imagined surprise, or blunt rejection. She had not imagined…pity.
But she saw pity in his dark eyes, and a wave of humiliation made her stomach cramp. Instinctively she swung her gaze away and caught sight of the two of them in a looking glass hanging on the wall.
Lavinia looked the same as she had two hours ago. Her thick hair was the color of new guineas; her blue eyes were framed by lavish eyelashes that she darkened religiously. A buxom figure and lips that she didn’t bother to color because her looks already skirted the edge of respectability.
That showed just how deceiving an appearance could be.
She was no longer the Lavinia of two hours ago. For one thing, she was no longer respectable. A hysterical giggle rose in her chest at the thought. Miss Lavinia Gray, daughter of Lady Gray, who had been wooed on both side of the Channel, was no longer—
Her eyes moved to Parth again and it struck her that he wasn’t wearing a coat, just a white linen shirt. In fact, he’d rolled up his sleeves, revealing powerful arms. No wig, no coat. She looked down. No boots.
“We aren’t from the same world,” he said, catching her thought but not understanding it. “You don’t want to marry me, Lavinia. I can’t imagine why you got that in your head.”
Out of nowhere, a streak of blind stubbornness appeared. “Would you…may I know your reasons for refusing me?”
He looked at her, incredulous. “Lavinia, are you feeling well?”
“Not particularly,” she said in a burst of honesty. “Perhaps because I’ve never done anything like this before.” She was confident around the men who’d courted her; their attentions confirmed her desirability. But something about Parth made her feel uncertain and defensive. At the same time, everything in her prickled into life.
“I gather you are saying no,” she added.
“I am indeed saying no,” Parth replied. His tone wasn’t unkind, but it was unambiguous. He moved to stand behind a chair, as if to put an obstacle between them, as if she were a feral dog who might lunge at him.
This wasn’t the way this was supposed to go.
Diana had been confident that Parth would agree, and she had talked at length about how he would fall in love with Lavinia after they had wed. With a sickening jolt, Lavinia realized that she had gone along with the plan because it involved Parth.
Who was precisely the sort of man who would never accept a bride he hadn’t chosen himself.
She was such a fool.
“Lavinia, is there anything I can—”
“No, nothing at all,” she said brightly, turning toward the door. “I can’t imagine why I ever had such an idiotic notion.”
He stepped in front of her. “Why did you?”
“I have had a lingering infatuation,” she said, the words pouring out before she caught them. “You don’t believe I give every man pet names, do you?”
She saw the muscles tense through the sheer linen of his shirt. It was…
“I’m joking!” she cried. “It’s time I return to my own chamber. You certainly don’t want me to be caught here. I can assure you, Parth, that I may ask a gentleman to marry me, but I would never compromise one.”
His hand whipped out and caught her arm. “I’m not the first you’ve proposed to?” It was a growl.
“As a matter of fact, you are.” Then she added, with reckless bravado, “But now I’ve broken the ice, so to speak, who knows where I’ll stop?”
Parth shook his head. “When you left England, you were the most desirable lady on the marriage market. You have no need to woo a man, Lavinia.”
“Times change,” she said lightly.
His gaze moved from her toes to her head. “No, they don’t. You look—” Then his eyes sharpened. “Wait. I see.”
“You do?” She pulled her arm free and began to back toward the door. Why had she listened to Diana? Everyone knew that her cousin was prone to wild ideas. Just look at the way Diana had run away from her own betrothal party with no more than a hatbox, and after that, had become a governess in the home of her jilted fiancé.
He took a step toward her, eyes intent. “It’s not a disgrace, Lavinia.”
“You know?” There was gravel in her voice.
“I can guess.”
“Oh.” The word was small and ashamed.
“I’ll find him,” Parth said, low and ferocious. “And I’ll kill him.”
“The father of your child.” Parth’s large hands closed around her shoulders. “Tell me his name.” His eyes fell to her bosom, assessed the size of her breasts, descended to her hips. “Three or four months on the way, I would guess?”
Lavinia’s mouth fell open, and then she snapped it shut. She’d been humiliated before, but now… “You believe I’d deceive you so?” The words came out broken and aching. “I know you don’t like me, Parth, but you think me capable of that? That I’d—that I’d ask you to marry me in order to disguise the fact I was carrying another man’s child?”
His eyes went blank and his hands fell away.
“You feel that I’m—that I had—that I would—” Her throat ached so much she couldn’t speak. She had known he disliked her. But she hadn’t imagined he thought she was loose. Or worse, conniving.
That was the moment when, looking back, Lavinia decided that she could consider herself brave. Because she didn’t cry or scream. She summoned the last dregs of her courage and drew herself upright.
She might have even given him a polite smile. “I apologize, Parth. Excuse me, I meant to say, Mr. Sterling. I intruded into your chamber and embarrassed both of us, for no good reason.”
She skirted him and fled, somehow finding the discipline to close the door quietly behind herself.