Inside The Ugly Duchess
Warning! In describing relations between characters, I may wreck a book for you by making it clear who someone marries, or the outcome of a book. Please do not read about The Inside Take if you're wary of knowing who is paired with whom!
- The Ugly Duchess is based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Ugly Duckling—but that fairy tale wasn’t published until several years after the date of this novel. My excuse is that I’m operating in fairy tale time. I may not give my characters magic wands, but I claim the right to weave my own improbable illusions.
- The interior decorator and fashion icon Ms. Iris Apfel was tremendously important when I was shaping Theo’s post-duckling life. In particular, I was caught by an article describing Ms. Apfel’s fashion rules. While I didn’t borrow any of her edicts, such as “Consider the Clergy,” Theo’s rules are unmistakably patterned on the brilliant original. Here’s an interview with the remarkable and creative Ms. Apfel that includes her rules.
- I was also deeply influenced by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux’s A Guide to Elegance: For Every Woman Who Wants to be Well and Properly Dressed on all Occasions, a charming book about fashion that was first published in 1964 and remains relevant today. I read it three times, and it was not only helpful in thinking about Theo, but in refashioning my own wardrobe!
- Would you like to see what Theo faced when she walked into Devonshire House and glimpsed Geoffrey Trevelyan in a group of beautiful men (“They had high cheekbones, deep bottom lips, and finely shaped noses. Even worse, they looked abominably clever”)?
- Theo and Geoffrey’s banter about the Princess of Imeretia, who slept in a solid silver bathtub, is drawn from Janet Flanner’s “Letters from Paris”, written for The New Yorker in the years leading up to World War II, and published as Paris was Yesterday. The book collects her brilliantly hilarious gossip column: I recommend it, whether you are fond of history—or merely gossip. I put myself in the latter category.
- Someone generally asks me of each novel: “But what’s it all about?” The Ugly Duchess is, most obviously, about what society considers to be beautiful and how those judgments influence the inner person. Theo is deeply affected throughout her life by the fact that her particular body type and face is not in vogue in Regency England. On the other hand, James’s physical beauty is such that his mother drags him before company to perform. By the final acts of The Ugly Duchess, Theo and James have switched places. James has lost his voice and tattooed his face; Theo has given society a whole new idea of what beauty is, in the way that brilliant women such as Coco Chanel and Iris Apfel have done throughout the centuries.
- James’s loss of voice was a gift from my daughter, Anna. Our family loves Leonard Cohen’s deep voice and his deeply moving love songs: she and I were discussing what might happen to James in the novel, when she shouted: “He should lose his voice and turn into Leonard!” No sooner said than done; James returns home with a voice that “sounded like brandy and sin.” My favorite song of his, “Dance Me to the End of Love,” served as a blueprint for the love song James sings to Theo at the end of the novel.
- When I finished this novel, I couldn’t bear to let the characters go. First I wrote a novella for Griffin, James’s cousin and fellow pirate captain (Seduced by a Pirate). Then I decided that one of Griffin’s children would surely have fallen in love with one of James’s children—after all, they spent every August and every Christmas together. So I wrote a three-part story, With this Kiss, With this Promise, and With this Ring. The novellas can be read in electronic form or in the paperback called As You Wish, which contains Pirate as well as Kiss, Promise, and Ring.