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Chatting with Katherine Ashe

81+7xddCgfL._SL1500_Katharine and I live in the same area and have met once. We also know each other on Twitter. Katharine is fairly well-known in our community as an academic who writes best-selling romances. I thought it would be interesting to ask her about her “double life” as well as her latest book, I Married the Duke.

This book begins with three young sisters consulting a Gypsy. Gypsies appear regularly in European historical romance. You’re a professor of European history as well as a successful romance writer. So, let me ask you, the historian, were Gypsies common in England in the 1800’s? Is the vision we have of them as fortune tellers based in historical fact? 

Yes, indeed. England’s Roma population traces its roots to the early sixteenth century. By the middle of that century, statutes regulated against “Gypsies”, like the 1554 Act for the punishment of certayne Persons calling themselves Egyptians, which prohibited Gypsies from entering the kingdom, and made them liable for a fine and eventually forfeiture of all their goods (which often included valuable livestock). Gypsies who didn’t comply were subject to the death penalty. Later statutes prohibited “vagabondage”, directed against Gypsies who’d been born in England and who therefore didn’t fall under the initial immigrant prohibitions. The first appearance of the word “rogues” in the statute books to describe Gypsies comes in 1572 alongside “sturdy beggars, pedlars and tynkers.” English Gypsies were usually itinerant, and by the eighteenth century regulations sought to fix them in permanent residences where they could be carefully watched and—more importantly—taxed. In 1743 the Justices Commitment Act punished “all persons pretending to be Gypsies, or wandering in the habit and form of Egyptians, or pretending to have skill in palmistry, or pretending to tell fortunes.” Statutes against those “pretending to tell fortunes by palmistry” are repeated throughout the nineteenth century, during which Parliament, local municipalities and missionary reformers made an effort to make Gypsies more English—essentially to remake them into faithful Christian, solid, stable British subjects.

So there were communities of Roma throughout England and Scotland in the early nineteenth century. If the statutes and missionaries (essentially amateur ethnographers) are to be believed, there were “Gypsies” telling fortunes to travelers on the roads and at fairs.

The Gypsy fortuneteller has certainly been a favorite trope in literature since at least the nineteenth century, when Victorians exoticized what they represented as the Gypsies’ vibrant, unfettered, and oftentimes dangerous lifestyle, from the trades they practiced (like fortune telling) and their caravan lifestyles to their music and dancing. I must sheepishly admit that I don’t read enough romance to know that they’re common in historical romance. I did try to paint the Gypsy fortuneteller in the first scene of I Married the Duke with a careful brush, noting her Englishness as well as the young sisters’ awareness that she was putting on a show because of their expectations. Actually, in the original plan for the book, Gypsies played a central role in the story. But the tale took a different turn when I began to write it. Book #3 in the Prince Catchers series will, however, prominently feature Gypsies.

Both the heroine and the hero of I Married the Duke lost their natural parents and were raised by foster parents/guardians. Were orphans common in the first half of the 19th century?

I don’t know the statistics. I suspect that in the Napoleonic war period England experienced an increase in the numbers of orphans. There were plenty of foundling homes in England in the early nineteenth century, and workhouses where orphans were sent when they aged out of the foundling homes. Even more parentless children would have been living with their extended families, which was common practice at the time.

Why are your leads parentless? What does having protagonists without living parents allow you, the writer, to do?

For this trilogy, it allows me to offer a mystery that spans the series: Who are the sisters’ parents and why on earth can only a prince reveal their true identity? It also allows for each of the sisters to develop strong characters at a young age. Foundling homes were not cheery Mary Poppinsville, and nineteenth-century habits of disciplining children didn’t spare the rod. Each of the sisters dealt differently with their early struggles: Arabella, the beautiful middle sister and heroine of I Married the Duke, fought; Eleanor, the studious eldest sister, endured; and Ravenna, the youngest sister, forever sought escape.

Another reason for parentless principal characters is the current trend of Regency romances in which lordly heroes abound. A hero without a father can be a Peer in his own right, with a title like Duke or Earl and with all the attendant wealth and status of a lord of the realm. In the case of my hero, Luc, however, his entrapment with an abusive guardian after he was orphaned leads him to the challenge he must overcome during the book. It suited the story I wished to tell of a man running from his past by trying to control his world who discovers in the courage and determination of a woman another solution to his pain: love.

You have a PhD in History. What is your focus? What called to you about that subject?

My degree is in Medieval Religious History and now I teach courses on medieval culture, religion, sexuality and gender. I adore all eras and places in history. Humanity is a spectacular, rich and complex creature. I never weary of studying it in all its tragedy and glory. Doing and teaching history is, however, not an antiquarian pursuit for me. I believe the study of history—indeed, any liberal art—should serve a higher purpose: to teach us how to understand the world we live in, to hone our critical faculties and to make us more responsible citizens of our free society. (This is of course not my idea; it’s as ancient as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in Athens, the birthplace of democracy.) Medieval European society offers fabulous stories with which to pursue that goal. When the stories of history are especially fun, what we learn about social injustice is both easier to swallow and easier to imagine changing in our own society.

You’ve spoken in several interviews on the ways you balance being a professor and a best-selling author of popular romance. Can you tell me a little bit about your journey?

I wrote love stories when I was a little girl, I wrote loves stories when I was a teen, and I wrote love stories as a young adult. I never considered writing love stories as a career. My father instilled in his daughters and son a respect for intellectual endeavor and a love of history, which eventually led me to academia as a profession. But even then I was still writing love stories. I wrote my first full-length historical romance while researching and writing my PhD thesis in Rome. By day in the Vatican Library and Archives I transcribed and translated fourteenth-century manuscripts and filled my brain with the theories of scholars, and by night I relaxed by writing romances set in the early nineteenth century (and drinking lots of Amaro, bitter artichoke liquer, which I absolutely love, but that’s another story…).

After about a decade in academia I decided that writing fantasy from history was more fun than writing scholarship from history. For a while I did both, but in secret; my professor friends didn’t know I wrote romance. I wasn’t ready to be judged entirely based on my love of romance and their ignorance or prejudices about it. I never felt ashamed of writing romance. It was a professional decision that was, I think, necessary at the time. A little over a year ago, though, I finally got tired of living two lives, and I came out of the closet (as it were). It’s so good to be one person again.

There is a note at the end of I Married the Duke where you write about the importance of referring to the Romani in non-derogatory ways. Romance novels are often referred to in the non-romance world with derisive terms. Are there words you’d like to see retired when it comes to talking about romance?

Well, bodice-ripper, of course, which references forced sex and female subjugation. I like alpha heroes, but I prefer men who respect women, even if they don’t quite understand them. Only one of my heroines has her bodice ripped, and she does it herself. I’m not fond of “Mommy porn” either. Romance can be deliciously arousing, but good romance isn’t porn. In the words of the wonderful Cathy Maxwell, sex is just one of the many ways a hero and heroine communicate with each other. I heartily agree. A good romance isn’t about the sex. It’s about the love story.

This book is the first of a trilogy. Did you plot all three books before you published I Married the Duke? Which sister’s story is next?

I broadly plotted the series from the start. When I’m writing, though, I let the characters lead me where they will. If that means I have to re-plot along the way, I do so happily. It’s their romance, after all.

My next Prince Catchers story is a Christmas novella Kisses, She Wrote, starring the rakish Earl of Bedwyr and shy wallflower Princess Jacqueline, who are both introduced in I Married the Duke. The second novel in the trilogy is Ravenna’s story and will be in stores next summer.

Many thanks for inviting me to visit AAR, Dabney. It’s been a pleasure.


Dabney Grinnan


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Elaine C.
Elaine C.
09/25/2013 10:18 pm

I really enjoyed this interview. Dabney, your questions were off-beat and very interesting. Katharine, your life as an academic has given you a focus as a writer. Then, too, your books are wonderful romances. I’ve read three and have just started “”I Married the Duke”” today. Until I read this interview, I never gave a thought to why a writer might have written orphaned characters, or why it is important to refer to the Romani in non-derogatory ways. I knew that the Romani were feared and hated during the Inquisition (witchcraft) on through the centuries (thievery). I think I’ll pay more attention when I read about such people in the future. Thanks, again, for a great interview! :-)

09/23/2013 7:53 am

Great interview. Now I have to research “”Amaro, bitter artichoke liquer””- yikes!

Reply to  LeeF
09/23/2013 8:55 am

I think she’s talking about Cynar, a famous Italian liquor.