An Interview with Hallie Rubenhold
Born in Los Angeles to a British father and an American mother, Hallie Rubenhold leads a busy life in both the US and UK, where she works as an author, broadcaster, historical consultant and an authority on 18th century British society.
Hallie completed a BA in History at the University of Massachusetts. She then embarked on a MA in History & Art History at the University of Leeds, specialising on marriage and child-rearing in the 1700s. Currently based in North London with her husband, Hallie has worked as a university lecturer, a curator for the National Portrait Gallery and an historical expert for television shows (ever seen City of Vice?). When she finally put pen to paper in 2005, her first non-fiction book, Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies; Sex in the City in Georgian Britain And The Harlot’s Handbook was acknowledged to great acclaim.
This debut work led Hallie to a BBC documentary, The Harlots Handbook, which Hallie presented. Another of Hallie’s books, Lady Worsley’s Whim (November 2008) is a factually accurate account of the scandalous divorce and adultery trial of Sir Richard Worsley and Maurice George Bisset, who ran off with Lady Worsley, the wife of his best friend, and homosexual lover. You think this is saucy? Read Hallie’s new historical fiction novel Mistress of My Fate – out now in bookstores across the UK – and if you like this, you’ll be pleased to hear that it’s the first of an exciting trilogy!
Thank you so much for agreeing to an interview, the world needs people like you who paid attention in history class!
Q: So, let’s start at the beginning. You were born in LA and went to your first university in the US, so what made you so interested in British history? What was it that captured your interest?
– British history is in my blood. My father was a Londoner before my grandfather brought the family to the US in the 1950s. I grew up hearing stories about my father’s boyhood during the second World War, about the Blitz and his evacuation to Northampton. I always found these tales gripping and it fostered in me a real interest in British history. Growing up in LA, a place with relatively no history, really made me crave a genuine connection with the past. The older I became the more I felt the absence of that history in my local environment and the meaning in that sense history conveys in one’s surroundings. Living somewhere so new, where the buildings were all modern, where there seemed to be a complete lack of tradition, or tie with what came before made me desire it all the more – so I went in search of it, via books and later through my studies.
Q: If you could live for a day in any era, what one would it be?
– The late eighteenth century – naturally! However, knowing what I do about that period, the diseases, filth, fleas, plumbing, and lack of decent food preservation, I think I’d be entirely ready to go back to the 21st century after a day.
Q: You once called 18th century Britain “the western world’s adolescence”. Aside from the mood swings, how do you think our society has ‘grown-up’? Do you sometimes find surprising comparisons and similarities between the two eras?
– Absolutely. In fact, one thing that never ceases to amaze me is just how little human nature has changed. If you give people an opportunity to believe they can better themselves (which is what happened in 18th century Britain) they will pursue that hope. They’ll become materialistic, aspirational, competitive and oftentimes disillusioned if they don’t believe they’ve attained their goals. The 18th century was an era of quite complex and challenging philosophical ideas, yet at the same time, society could be very shallow and obsessed with image, celebrity and conspicuous consumption. To be honest, I’m not sure we’ve entirely grown up in the 21st century – we’ve just become more cynical and possibly complacent in our disillusionment!
Q: What would you say is your favourite book?
– I have so many favourite books – and they tend to change according to my mood. The Crimson Petal and The White by Michel Faber is definitely high on my list, but I’ve also just read The Help by Kathyrn Stockett, which really left an impression on me.
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring writers, especially those interested in historical fiction?
– Immerse yourself completely in the period – don’t cut corners and read everything you can! I’ve often found, especially when dealing with television production companies, that people tend to think that creating a fictional story where characters interact with real historical figures in true historical settings somehow compromises one’s ability to tell a good tale. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you truly understand a time period and the limitations and restrictions of that era, if you know the sequence of events as they occurred in history, then the tale organically grows out of that. It’s very easy to imagine how characters would have reacted or felt in situations, but you have to be prepared to wear their skin for a while and imagine their world as they saw it, full of its prejudices and ugliness and simple pleasures. The more detail you can discover, the richer and more accurate your characters and setting will be, and the more you can place yourself in their heads. Contrary to what a lot of people may think, readers (and viewers) can actually tell when someone hasn’t done their research!
Q: How long do you spend researching your books? Was the research harder/different for your most recent novel?
– When I’m writing non fiction, the period of research is usually very intense and can take up an entire year or more, depending on when my publisher wants me to deliver my manuscript. By comparison, Mistress of My Fate was a pure joy, a walk in the park, because it came out of years of historical research that had already been archived in my brain.
Q: Your first fictional book Mistress of My Fate, the first in the series called The Confessions of Henrietta Lightfoot, has just been released here in the UK (July 7th). Did you find it liberating to not be wholly confined by factual evidence (as is the case in your informative non-fiction books)? And how would you describe Henrietta to our readers?
– Yes, it was totally liberating. It’s very frustrating when you’re researching and writing the histories of relatively obscure people because there’s often so little source material that survives. You encounter large blanks in their stories where there’s no information about where they went or what they were thinking or what happened. With a novel, this never happens and the freedom feels boundless.
I wanted my heroine, Henrietta Lightfoot to feel as true to the late 18th century as possible. She’s very innocent and very good, as girls with her upbringing would have been. She’s very much like a heroine from any number of 18th century novels – Evelina, Sophia Western, Clarissa Harlowe, and most of Jane Austen’s young women, but unlike in these books, Henrietta is faced with the grim reality of her position in society. She’s not protected from consequences and she has to learn to cope with the harshness of life. This is especially hard for her because society didn’t equip well bred young ladies with survival skills. Women were property in the 18th century, and were treated as such. In truth, she could have ended up much worse off than I allow her in Mistress of My Fate. It is, after all, a novel!
Q: Have you already got a plan for the next two novels in the trilogy? What sort of characters and stories can we look forward to enjoying?
– Oh, it’s going to be so much fun! At the moment I’m busy writing the next book in the series, The French Lesson, which picks up right where Mistress of My Fate leaves off. Henrietta sets off for Revolutionary Paris in pursuit of Lord Allenham and gets mixed up with some interesting historical figures including the Duc d’Orleans and his paranoid mistress Agnes du Buffon. The French Lesson will be slightly darker than Mistress of My Fate and will be heavy on intrigue. Book three will be set in Italy, between Rome, Naples and Venice, just before it falls to Napoleon. It will involve a lot of artwork, double cross, illicit activity and of course, what they would have called in the 18th century, ‘gallantry’.
Q: Now Hallie, we’re putting our Mum-hat on here and saying you seem to be incredibly busy! How do you ‘wind down’ on your time off from work?
– Unfortunately, I’ve not had nearly enough unwinding time lately. I love travelling and am off to Portugal for a well deserved break soon. Other than that, walking in the country side does wonders for me, as does meditation and a good run. I tend to cook quite elaborate meals when it’s cold and dark, which is such a nice diversion from sitting in front of the computer. Good food and excellent company around a dinner table is probably the best way to spend what little down time I have.
Q: Right, ok last question (we ask everyone this!) Here at World of Books we are dedicated to providing good-quality second-hand books to the public. By sourcing a large amount of our books from charities, we are also able to support their cause, often sending books out to developing countries and recently to UK based Army barracks. Any book we can’t sell, we recycle; last year alone we saved 12,500 metric tonnes of waste from going to landfill sites. In a world with an ever-growing digital media base, and increasing environmental concerns, do you believe in the importance of giving each physical book the chance of a new home?
– Yes, and why not? I can never understand why anyone would throw a book away when someone else can derive so much from it.
Intrigued? Why not pick up a copy of Hallie Rubenhold’s debut fictional novel, Mistress of My Fate, today!