Welcome to History Undressed, Kaaren Christopherson, author of Decorum!
Capturing the Visual Appeal of the Gilded Age
By Kaaren Christopherson
For many readers the visual element—the description of a place or person—is the most intriguing feature of historical fiction. I was lucky that when Connor O’Casey and Francesca Lund first appeared in my imagination as I embarked on writing Decorum, they came firmly planted in the Gilded Age with its enormous visual appeal and abundant resources—and I drew on many.
The late 19th century was a time of rapid change, with old and new living side by side—motor cars sharing streets with horse-drawn carriages, electric lights in one street and gas lamps in the next. American and European Impressionists were capturing everyday life in oils on canvas. Soon photographs would replace engravings to illustrate newspapers and magazines. The Gilded Age offers all of these media—engravings, photographs, and paintings—covering the same period, and often the same events, from different viewpoints.
Engravings from Harper’s Weekly were a gold mine of inspiration for many of the activities in which Connor, Blanche, Francesca, and Edmund took part, such as visiting art galleries, attending charity masquerade balls, and walking (and arguing?) in snowy Central Park. A collection of turn-of-the-century photographs of New York interiors from the Museum of the City of New York brought a more “modern” view of famous restaurants like the Café Savarin where the Jeromes entertained Aunt Esther and Francesca, and a tea room that was the inspiration for Blanche’s Blue Iris. Visits to Gilded Age homes such as Heurich House in Washington, DC, and the Theodore Roosevelt birthplace in New York helped me step back in time, as if I had just arrived to pay a call on the Worths or Nell Ryder.
Viewing Mary Cassatt paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and tapping into the wonderful historical information on the Metropolitan Opera’s website inspired Decorum’s scenes at the opera. Cassatt’s At the Francais (a Sketch) shows a lady with opera glasses seated in her box intent on viewing the stage while a gentleman several boxes over is intent on studying her, much like Connor watching Francesca at the opera. Fashion engravings from Harper’s Bazaar offered hundreds of pictures of ball gowns, reception gowns, visiting dresses, walking suits, traveling clothes, shoes, lingerie, bonnets, bustles, and bodices.
One resource that helped give life and “order” to this mountain of information in my writer’s imagination was my great-grandmother’s etiquette book, from which my novel Decorum derives its name. The wisdom and advice the etiquette book offers put these otherwise static pictures in motion—ladies and gentlemen being introduced, traveling by train, sending invitations, leaving visiting cards, attending dinner parties, and choosing colors for new gown. Desirable behavior is laid out in detail for the novel’s upwardly mobile characters follow (or not).
Finally, in my quest for the visual in the Gilded Age, I collected cabinet photographs from antique shops and flea markets to put faces to the names of the characters who populate Decorum’s world. Here are real people, Decorum’s people, as they might have looked when the story begins in 1890. No matter how we might cast the characters or choose film locations in our heads, the real Gilded Age offers the author resources with a wealth of visual drama that can inspire vivid description for historical fiction.
Decorum: A Novel by Kaaren ChristophersonPublication Date: March 31, 2015
Kensington Publishing Corp.
Foramts: eBook, Paperback, Audio
Pages: 425 Genre: Historical Fiction/Romance
Kaaren Christopherson's brilliantly observed novel captures the glamour and grit of one of the world's most dazzling cities during one of its most tumultuous eras--as seen through the eyes of a singularly captivating heroine...
In 1890s New York, beautiful, wealthy Francesca Lund is an intriguing prospect for worthy suitors and fortune hunters alike. Recently orphaned, she copes by working with the poor in the city's settlement movement. But a young woman of means can't shun society for long, and Francesca's long-standing acquaintance with dashing Edmund Tracey eventually leads to engagement. Yet her sheltered upbringing doesn't blind her to the indiscretions of the well-to-do...
Among the fashionable circle that gathers around her there are mistresses, scandals, and gentlemen of ruthless ambition. And there is Connor O'Casey--an entirely new kind of New Yorker. A self-made millionaire of Irish stock, Connor wants more than riches. He wants to create a legacy in the form of a luxury Madison Avenue hotel--and he wants Francesca by his side as he does it. In a quest that will take her from impeccable Manhattan salons to the wild Canadian Rockies, Francesca must choose not only between two vastly different men, but between convention and her own emerging self-reliance.
Rules Of Decorum
A gentleman should not be presented to a lady without her permission being previously asked and granted. This formality is not necessary between men alone; but, still, you should not present any one, even at his own request, to another, unless you are quite well assured that the acquaintance will be agreeable to the latter.
If you wish to avoid the company of any one that has been properly introduced, satisfy your own mind that your reasons are correct; and then let no inducement cause you to shrink from treating him with respect, at the same time shunning his company. No gentleman will thus be able either to blame or mistake you.
The mode in which the avowal of love should be made, must of course, depend upon circumstances. It would be impossible to indicate the style in which the matter should be told... Let it, however, be taken as a rule that an interview is best; but let it be remembered that all rules have exceptions...
“Reminiscent of Washington Square but with a more modern heroine, Decorum illuminates the dark world beneath New York society. …” – RT Book Review, 4 stars
“…the novel is remarkable in its similarities to the work of Edith Wharton. The reader feels drawn into a world of glamour, glitz, and supreme hypocrisy. Everything is permissible as long as one does not get caught. It is a drama of manners and the stakes are high—one misstep could mean social oblivion. … This novel will appeal to a wide range of readers, particularly those who enjoy period novels such as Age of Innocence and The Portrait of a Lady.” – The Historical Novel Society
“New York, 1890, and the glitz and glamor of the time and setting, are the backdrop for this novel about a young heiress who suddenly finds herself alone in the world. I loved how each chapter began with a rule of etiquette based upon the societal norms of the time. The story gave me a glimpse of what it would have been like to live among the wealthiest and most prominent citizens. Of course, all is not perfect, for the heroine must maneuver her way through treachery, greed, and scandal to find which of the two men in her life is her true love. I thoroughly enjoyed how the characters interacted, and how authentic they felt to me. Lots of wonderfully rich descriptions of places and gowns really brought the era to life. … I definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys New York in the Gilded Age. A good historical read!” – Mirella Patzer, Historical Novel Review
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kaaren Christopherson is the author of Decorum—a novel about Gilded Age New York—that began taking form in 1999 during a course on writing historical fiction. From that moment, Connor O’Casey (who had been rattling around in her brain for months) finally appeared one night and said, “All right, woman. Here I am. What are you going to do about my story?” So she began to put his words on paper, and he hasn’t kept quiet since. Soon Francesca, Blanche, Tracey, Vinnie, and the rest of the characters began arguing, gossiping, loving, and forming themselves into Kaaren’s first novel.
Kaaren has had a professional career writing and editing for over 30 years and is a senior editor for an international development nonprofit organization in Washington, DC.
She has written fiction since her school days, story poems, children’s books, historical fiction, and time travel, and continues to be active in writer’s groups and writing workshops. In addition to her career as a writer, Kaaren was the owner of a decorative painting business. She loves to travel and prowl through historical sites, galleries, and museums. She is active in several churches in DC and in her local Northern Virginia community, where she shares her home with feline brothers, Archie and Sammy.
A Michigan native, Kaaren received her BA in history and art and her MA in educational administration from Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan.
For more information visit Kaaren Christopherson's website. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.