Vanessa Riley on how The First Wives Club inadvertently inspired her new Regency romance
Vanessa Riley has made a name for herself with her historical romances blooming with careful research that reflects a more accurate and diverse portrait of the Regency era.
Now, with A Duke, The Lady, and a Baby, Riley is making her print debut. EW debuts the cover for the novel, which hits shelves in July, below.
The novel follows Patience Jordan, a West Indian heiress who is left in the lurch following her English husband’s mysterious suicide. Amidst a cloud of suspicion, she’s lost everything, including her fortune and her son Lionel. Enter The Widow’s Grace — a secret society dedicated to helping ill-treated widows regain their status, families, and maybe even true love. With their help, Patience gets hired as her son’s nanny, working under the watchful eye of Lionel’s new guardian, the Duke of Repington, Busick Strathmore. The ex-rake adheres to a military code of unswerving honor and unexpected passion, a passion fueled by the alluring Patience.
Strangely, it wasn’t a historical figure or a real secret organization of widows that inspired this novel. Riley happened to be watching The First Wives Club on television and realized that the heroines of that 1996 film could do with some advice from the sage older ladies featured in the works of Jane Austen and on shows like Downton Abbey.
Along with this cover debut, we called up Riley to get the story behind the novel, why she loves writing in the Regency era, and just how she ended up with that vibrant, bright yellow cover.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your books are always so rich with historical detail. Was there a particular historical tidbit or story that sparked this idea?
No, I was watching TV (Laughs). I was watching First Wives Club [the movie]. I kept thinking to myself, they need Lady Russell from Persuasion or Violet Crawley [from Downton Abbey] to tell them how to get out of this mess. That was somewhat of the genesis of it. Because [in this era], widows are kind of the equivalent of divorcees because they’re looked at as second class citizens. If you were following your husband in the military, and he gets killed, you have instantly lost access to your money, your housing. Often those women got married and like two or three days after their husband was killed in battle. Because it was the only way to protect themselves. If you elope and you don’t have the benefit of a marriage contract, you’re completely screwed because that doesn’t say what happens when your husband passes. The situation is really difficult. It’s similar to divorcees that are trying to start over. It’s an interesting group of women. I’ve read so many stories of horror stories of guardians taking the children. They need Lady Russell or Violet Crawley to tell them what to do.
This novel introduces us to the Widow’s Grace, a secret society of widows fighting back against society. Where did the idea for them come from?
Literally thinking if you have a group of women that are ostracized from society, they need some help. Once again thinking of this Violet Crawley, Lady Russell person coming in and using her influence to shelter them, to help them think through how to regain everything they’ve lost. I picture this network in Regency society because you figure out very quickly who’s going to accept you, who’s not going to accept you, and you go to where you’re accepted. I have this vision of this secret society that stretches all across England, so that if a widow needed to figure out how to get passage to leave the country, this secret network would be able to help with that. Or if there was [a need for] legal help, this network would be able to [assist]. I had this vision of literally Lady Russell and Violet Crawley helping these widows get on their feet and this secret society. It was designed so that people are not aware of it unless you need the help. The help comes because women are helping women. I’m very big on trying to write strong sisterhoods and sisterhoods that [are] the family you choose, not necessarily the family you’re born into. This idea of women helping women, getting them back on their right footing, that was the genesis of the Widow’s Grace.
This is your print debut – did that greatly change your writing process in any way?
No, not really. I love writing, right? I love it when the house is quiet, you know, from 10 o’clock till 2 a.m.in the morning. That’s my time to jam on the keyboards. I’m pretty much a rigorous person with scheduling. It’s a thrill to get the words on the page. I pace myself to figure out when things need to be turned in. I’m religious about word counts. I use metrics to figure out where I am and where I need to be in the story. I keep pace on that.
Similarly, your previous covers have all featured models. This is an illustrated cover. So, first off, were you excited about that? And how did you hit on this design – was the process a lot different, particularly your level of input/involvement, from your e-books?
It was. It’s been exciting. I met with the art directors earlier this year. I wanted something different. This is a little lighter series than I’ve written to date. I wanted to show the fun but yet have some intrigue. The cover is amazing. I take my hat off to their vision. They’re listening to me. There are clues hidden to the story in the cover. It’s a great representation for how the series is going to be written. There’s intrigue in that cover. It’s very inviting, with the color and stuff like that.
Was the bright yellow your choice?
That may not have been my choice (Laughs). But I love it. You ever go shopping with a friend, right? And they’re like, “Oh, try this dress.” You put it on. It’s like, “Wow, I would never have done this. But I love it.” It’s just so vibrant, and it’s got so much life to it. It’s a beautiful cover.
Is the illustrated factor also part of signaling that it’s lighter than your previous books?
Yes. The very last book, The Bewildered Bride, was a heavy lift. It was dealing with some of the consequences of violence against women. This is a lighter, lighter story. I’m an emotional writer, so it still has the emotional part to it.
Faith is an important part of your novels. Can you tell me more about how that plays into this story and why that’s something that’s important to you to include in your romances?
For me, faith is that cornerstone when everything goes wrong. That’s that thing that you can rely on — faith in yourself, faith in God, faith in your family, faith in friends. It’s this element that says, “I’m going to be okay.” It’s the thing that helps guide you morally, spiritually. With this particular book, you get to see Patience’s worldview because she’s coming from the West Indies. She’s bringing some of the gods that they worship into the scenario. Then you have Busick Strathmore, the Duke of Repington. He’s coming from the Anglican world, and he’s bringing his faith into this. You get a little bit of a battle of how they’re tested. They’re so very different, but at the core, believing “If I do my best, things are going to work out.” That’s a theme that everyone needs. And a little bit of hope and faith — everybody needs that, especially during these times where everything seems difficult or strained.
Your book is the story of a nanny and a guardian. Obviously, she is really the child’s mother and there’s some deception here – but did you find yourself having to make changes/walk a tightrope when it came to power dynamics or questions of consent?
Absolutely. My hero is completely alpha. He’s a reformed rake, but he’s trying to live differently. He’s trying to listen to his better angels. The power dynamic of a duke and a nanny — that was very present in my mind. The change in their relationship from employer to something romantic has to be something that is mutually agreed upon. For the most part, [it] needs to be her choice [and] her initiation. I want to believe that the message that my stories are bringing is showing a woman having power, women making smart choices, men respecting those choices and respecting those boundaries.
The Regency is one of the most popular eras for writing romance – what appealed to you about writing in this time period and are there particular writers or characters/figures that inspire you?
Oh, absolutely. My mother stressed that we read the classics. So we were very much a Shakespearean, Emerson, Thoreau kind of household. When I started reading Jane Austen, everything clicked because I liked the fun and the pacing and the dialogue. These really clever situations where you had people who are opposites, but they weren’t really opposites. I love Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Emma. Then I get to Sanditon, and I’m like, I’m home. You have a West Indian mulatto Miss Lambe. She’s the wealthiest woman in the book, and people are scheming to marry her. Jane Austen is a contemporary writer; she’s writing what she’s seeing. This was a common thing. When you look at Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Demerara, people are sending their children to be educated in Scotland and England and France. There’s a lot of mixed-race individuals that are coming into play during this timeframe. There’s a whole piece that frankly has been missing. I’m glad to try to fill in the gap because it’s very diverse. There’s so much in history and particularly from the West Indies, this migration that comes to Europe for education. Those are the women that I want to bring to the stories because they add an additional richness to the Regency genre. Regency is extremely popular, but we’ve all fallen into a lens that just looks at [beloved romance author Georgette] Heyer’s definition. If you go back to its roots, and Jane Austen, it’s actually diverse.