Elizabeth Hoyt has created her fair share of dukes and damsels perfectly capable of rescuing themselves, but she’s about to enter a whole new world with her latest series, the Greycourt novels, beginning with Not the Duke’s Darling on Dec. 18.
With her Maiden Lane series, Hoyt introduced readers to the Lords of Chaos — an evil cabal of aristocratic men — but with the Greycourt series, she ups the ante on Georgian era secret societies, introducing the Wise Women — a secret order of women who seek to assist and keep safe those unable to protect themselves.
The first novel in the new series, Not the Duke’s Darling, follows Freya de Moray, a member of the order of Wise Woman and daughter of disgraced nobility living under a false name. Freya also seeks revenge against Christopher Renshaw, the Duke of Harlowe, the man she believes destroyed her brother and precipitated the downfall of her entire family. Naturally, she also once had a girlhood crush on him.
Hoyt is exclusively revealing the cover to the first novel in the series to EW and chatted with us about what to expect from the new series, why she’s fascinated by secret societies, and why she leans into the darkness and fairly ferocious heroines in her writing. See the cover below and then read on for a sneak peek of her next book.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is the first in a new series – can you tease a little bit about the arc of the series and where the idea for it came from?
ELIZABETH HOYT: I think about series and books years in advance, and they have a tendency to evolve and mutate, so I really can’t tell you what the beginning and the end of what that thought was. It’s vaguely about two families that have a tragedy in the past. They were once good friends. They’re both aristocratic families, and the children grew up together and there’s a terrible tragedy that breaks them apart and makes them enemies. The arc of the series is healing that wound. I’ve also got a side arc with women who are in a secret society called the Wise Women who help each other. The opening of the book is the heroine helping to liberate a baby who’s being held by his uncle as collateral to control the money of the estate and to keep the mother of the baby from having power and control over her own son. So, there’s kind of a political and social thing going on in the background, but hopefully not overshadowing too much of the fun of the books.
Traditionally, when you hear the words “wise women” you think of a mystical or supernatural element to those words. Is that present?
No, no. I thought about that for about a second. In some ways, it’s harder to write novels when there isn’t any magic or supernatural, so this is straight historical. The wise women’s part is not historically [accurate], but most things about aristocratic spies, all those tropes, are not historically accurate either, so I thought, “Heck with it, I’m going to try something with women this time.” The bad guys in the series think they’re literal witches, so they do believe in witchcraft and all that, but in my world, that’s not real. There’s a whole tension with women in power being perceived as evil and something to be afraid of by the bad guys.
In this book, you have a secret order of Wise Women. In the Maiden Lane series, which you just wrapped up, you had the Lords of Chaos — why do secret societies appeal to you? Why do you keep returning to them?
I don’t know. The Lords of Chaos, that came out of, this sounds awful, but the whole Penn State thing. That seems so over the top and ridiculous that such famous men could have hidden something so atrocious. That’s happened before, and it will probably happen again. If you told somebody that, you would think it’s made up, but it’s real, and so I thought I’d put that in my book. When you’ve got bad guys [in historical romance], you’ve got the person who’s trying to murder you because he needs to inherit something. After that, you have to find something else, and this is a little bit hard. So I thought of a whole secret society of bad guys. With the women, it’s almost a flipped thing. I used to love to read stories where the heroes were Knight Templars. Well, this is the heroine, and they’re part of this empowering feminine group. It has to be secret because at the time politically that wouldn’t work.
Were you inspired by any actual secret societies in Georgian or Regency England?
Not for the women. Although if you look at witch trials they had back then, the type of women who are ostracized, tortured, and killed for witchcraft generally are either old women who maybe they’re senile or they have a lot of knowledge; women who are involved with childbirth of any type; and women in power. It’s been used to take down women who the men in the community think of as above their feminine station. So, that part is historically accurate and currently accurate. I don’t know of any female societies. There was a famous group in the Georgian era that were aristocrats that were supposedly doing abominable things and worshipping the devil in terms of the Lords of Chaos. Although now they think they weren’t as bad as they thought they were. Their reputation was worse than reality. But on the other hand, seeing as how this was also a time when clubs were being formed from coffee houses, it’s entirely believable to think there could be a secret men’s cabal.
Another theme of many of your books is a need for vengeance and a healing of old wounds, which often means they have a darker element. I’m thinking specifically of Raphael’s past in Duke of Desire, but that seems to be present here as well. Why do you gravitate towards this darkness?
The stakes are higher if you have an emotional well there. Then, it gives gravitas and it gives sympathy to the characters if they’ve been hurt terribly. And thirdly, when you are down that far with the hurt, with the bad thing that’s happened, when you get the happiness at the end, it’s so much more cathartic. If you’ve lost your family, when you’ve lost your friendship, if the world been’s exploded around you and everything you thought you were going to grow up to be has changed – that’s what the characters are dealing with in this book, especially the heroine. Until the age of 12 she was the daughter of a duke and if you asked her what she was going to be, she would have thought she was going to grow up and marry some other guy, probably the hero of the book. She had a crush on him. And have children and be a duke’s daughter. But that all exploded around her. She also lost her best friend – the best friend was a girl in the other house, in the other family. So a lot of this is about grief, about losing that. My books are more about family. My overall theme is that no matter what you can heal with your family and come back and be family again. Whatever family means, so sometimes in my books family is not necessarily blood relations, but a different family, and that human connection is vital to us as humans. We need it, and we can get that. It’s hopeful, and we can heal our wounds and live happily ever after.
Your heroines are incredibly fierce, from pirates to the heroine here who is plotting her own revenge and belongs to a secret society. Are they inspired by traits you value in yourself or in others?
I’m a middle-aged overweight white woman, so I don’t have many opportunities to kick ass, but I feel like I’m a very strong person. My mother, actually all the women in my family are very strong people. I used to read these books in my teenage years in the ’80s where the heroines were just so passive. Fortunately, we’ve gotten past that. I do try to make them strong because the stronger the heroine, the stronger [the] hero. He has to match her. And if she’s really weak, he’s going to just run right over her and who wants that? I like a clash of wills. I like people who are equally strong. So I want my strong hero, but I also want a strong heroine so she can match him and they can argue. I like arguing. I think it’s sexy. It’s kind of like foreplay a lot of the time.
And do you ever find yourself battling against incorrect assumptions that women in the past were all docile portraits of obedience?
That happens quite often. Because most of what people read are Regencies, and the Regency model was Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen. People assume that that’s the only way people were. First of all I’m writing in the Georgian period which was a little bit more wild. Society didn’t quite have these really cut and dry rules. Sometimes I wonder how cut and dry those were, even in the Regency era. People always cite the rule of thumb — it supposedly was a law that a man couldn’t beat his wife with a stick that was thicker than a thumb. This is always cited as how awful men were to women, and how prevalent wife-beating was and all that. It makes me think. Because we have laws today where – jaywalking for instance — if people thought any time people crossed the street against traffic, they were arrested immediately and thrown in jail. That’s not quite true. It’s a law. It may not be a good law. But people would be assuming everyone is doing that. Just because there was a woman who had no control at all, that doesn’t mean all of the women were passive and led sad, sad lives.
You’ve said before that you often find yourself falling down research rabbit holes — was there one in particular you found yourself in for this series?
There have been several. [Laughs] This is terrible. You know the book Fanny Hill – there are several scenes in here where they talk about Fanny Hill, and there was a sex scene right after it. I’m doing revisions and my editor has this note saying, “Did she hear about going down on him from Fanny Hill?” I stopped because it’s been awhile since I read Fanny Hill. So I started googling “bl— job in Fanny Hill,” which came up with a lot of porn movies. [Laughs] Then I started googling “fellatio in Fanny Hill,” and then I came up with all these [illustrations]. Fanny Hill from the beginning had illustrations, which makes sense; it’s pornography. It’s one of the first widely distributed pornography books. They were really quite lovely. I started going through all these prints seeing if I could find fellatio, and I thought, these are just gorgeous. The other thing I thought was really funny was, they’re totally nude but they’re both wearing wigs.
Is there something you loved about writing the book? Or a particular challenge?
I really loved the heroine. She kind of reflected my emotions for the last year because of politics and the world. She starts the book with a burn-it-all-down attitude. That was fun to write. She’s just angry. The hero was just kind of like, “Is she insane? Why is she so angry?” Of course he doesn’t recognize her. She ends up challenging him to a duel, and they actually duel and she wins, which I really like. Usually the first quarter to a third [of a book] plots out really well, and then I get trouble in the back half. I was having a really hard time with the conflict between these two. It comes down to choice for her, which I think is very appropriate for our time period. She’s worried. She loves him, but in the last quarter of the book, she’s worried that marrying a man is giving up your autonomy. Even now in 2018, I think there’s a little bit of that that’s still true. Anybody marrying, male or female, you worry that you’re giving up yourself. Back then, you weren’t just giving up yourself but you were giving up all your money and possibly your physical safety, that kind of stuff, to the husband. I’m hoping not to make it too academic because that’s never fun but I like that as a conflict.
At this particular moment, romance is doing some long-needed grappling with issues of diversity and inclusivity. What do you think those, like yourself, that are already established in the genre can do to help combat the very real issues there?
In my own writing, I can include people of color, which I’ve done before. I haven’t done a main hero or heroine, simply because I’m a white middle-aged lady. I don’t feel like I could necessarily give voice to that person well enough. But I have done secondary characters. Acknowledging that there were Jewish people, there were black people certainly, and all these other people. London at this time period was a world city. There were people from all over there. They weren’t necessarily widespread, but they were there. I heard a well-known historical author talking about her heroine seeing a black person for the first time and being shocked, and I thought “That’s ridiculous.” They were in prints; they were in paintings; and if you lived in London, there’s no way you could not have seen a black person. Period. So there’s that — acknowledge that there are more people than just WASPs in the world. But then it’s really important to acknowledge that women of color, particularly black women, to acknowledge these people are my peers, they’re my colleagues and to read their work, recommend their work, invite them on panels. Sit with them at the conference without getting up. I can’t believe that was a thing. There are people out there who just do not get it. We, who are the majority, need to make sure that we acknowledge that we have peers. These are peers, they’re not below us and we’re not doing them a favor by liking their books and talking to them about them. It’s not a patronizing thing. It’s that these people are equal to us, and they’re out there.