Author Interview: Tessa Arlen – A Dress of Violet Taffeta is a historical fiction novel based on Lady Lucile Duff-Gordon, a survivor of the Titanic. Tessa joins me today to chat more about her novel.
About Tessa Arlen:
When Tessa was asked why she chose to write historical fiction she admitted that history was the only subject in her English boarding school, apart from literature, that held any genuine interest or that she was particularly good at. She admits that she was a terrible student: a real day-dreamer!
Her father was a career diplomat which meant the family lived everywhere—until Tessa was nine and sent back to England for a ‘proper’ education. The contrast between her boarding school at the top of a windy hill in the Chilterns with its drafty dormitories and frightful food was a stark one compared to her earlier life in the vivid warmth of the tropics. She was in such culture shock she simply disappeared into her own world for four years; rescued from complete academic disaster by her history teacher, Elfreda, Lady Neale. Tessa recalls that Lady Neale was a strange old lady: “She was tall and rather stooped with straight iron-gray hair. She spoke in such a low tone we had difficulty hearing her, and would crane forward in our seats. She certainly made those ancient centuries live for us! She was very fond of telling us that history was simply ‘very old gossip.’” Tessa has been a fascinated amateur historian ever since.
Synopsis for A Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa Arlen
Lucy Duff Gordon knows she is talented. She sees color, light, and texture in ways few people can begin to imagine. But is the male dominated world of haute couture, who would use her art for their own gain, ready for her?
When she is deserted by her wealthy husband, Lucy is left penniless with an aging mother and her five-year-old daughter to support. Desperate to survive, Lucy turns to her one true talent to make a living. As a little girl, the dresses she made for her dolls were the envy of her group of playmates. Now, she uses her creative designs and her remarkable eye for color to take her place in the fashion world—failure is not an option.
Then, on a frigid night in 1912, Lucy’s life changes once more, when she becomes one of 706 people to survive the sinking of the Titanic. She could never have imagined the effects the disaster would have on her fashion label Lucile, her marriage to her second husband, and her legacy. But no matter what life throws at her, Lucy will live on as a trailblazing and innovative fashion icon, never letting go of what she worked so hard to earn. This is her story.
Author Interview: Tessa Arlen
Tessa, I’m so excited to talk to you today about A Dress of Violet Taffeta, out July 5th, 2022. Thank you for joining me for this Q & A.
Thank you! Lovely to join you too.
Can you tell me a little about the inspiration behind A Dress of Violet Taffeta?
First of all, I love the era, particularly the 1910s just before the outbreak of WWI in 1914. There was so much that was new and exciting at the turn of the 20th century: socially, politically and in the arts. The clothes of the time reflected this very dynamic time, from the stiff formality of the late 19th century to the softer, feminine lines and colors that Lucy Duff Gordon embraced when she designed for her label Lucile. I was also impressed by how an ordinary housewife and mother could recover from being abandoned by her husband and not only make her way but achieve such colossal success in the male-dominated fashion industry.
I would love to hear what drew you to Lady Lucile Duff-Gordon.
I already knew about Lucy from researching the era for my Edwardian Lady Montfort mystery series. I knew she was a fashion designer and that she survived the Titanic disaster, but that was it. Then on a miserably cold and depressing February day in London, I dropped into the Victoria & Albert Museum and there was an exhibition of Lucy Duff Gordon’s dresses under her Lucile label. They were quite the most lovely things I saw that day in the museum. The exquisite detail, the flowing lines and the brilliant use of color in those elegant gowns made the room simply shimmer. I had to find out more about Lucy and her astonishing achievements.
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Author Interview: Tessa Arlen: Let’s Chat About Writing
Can you describe the process of researching A Dress of Violet Taffeta?
It began with that exhibition. The V&A museum shop had a wonderfully illustrated book of Lucy’s journey from her being just another London dressmaker to her becoming one of the most sought after fashion designers in London, New York and Paris. Once I started to read about her, more aspects of her life just seemed to jump out at me in the most unexpected ways. But that is what happens when you research!
Do you have any favorite snacks, music, or rituals for your writing? For instance, are you blasting music or do you need complete silence?
No music, but if the weather is fine I have the terrace door open so I can hear the birds singing—sometimes they are so loud I have to close it. I write very early in the morning and just sit down with a cup of tea and get going. My two corgis hang out with me, and they have no idea whatsoever about the silence rule!
Do you have any advice for new writers?
Write the story you want to read. Don’t be swayed by what is trending in the bestseller lists! By the time you are done with your book, have found an agent, are under contract and the book comes out (and it takes a long time for all that to happen so don’t give up your day-job) reading trends will have moved on.
Reading Recs, TV Casting & More
A Dress of Violet Taffeta, is high on my list of must-read summer books! What are some books on your TBR?
Sisters of Night and Fog by Erika Robuck, The Women of Chateau Lafayette by Stephanie Dray, The Paris Bookshop by Kerri Maher, The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn. All of them are historical novels, are out now and waiting for me to read!
I always love talking about TV and movies. If you were to cast an adaptation for A Dress of Violet Taffeta, do you have anyone in mind for your characters?
Lily James (Linda Radlett in The Pursuit of Love TV mini-series and Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca TV mini-series) has the perfect personality to play Lucy Duff Gordon with her playful personality and her disarming way of sticking up for herself when she has to.
Lucy’s dynamic sister, the red-haired Elinor Glyn, who wrote racy novels and was an unstoppable character would best be played by someone as voluptuously wicked and sophisticated as Julianne Moore (Mrs. Laura Chevely in The Ideal Husband).
Which brings me to Lucy’s wonderful second husband Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, the consummate gentleman and man of honor. Hands down I would cast Jeremy Northam—he even looks like Sir Cosmo and has a beautiful voice. (Northam played Ivor Novello in one of my favorite movies: Gosford Park.)
Finally, the character of Mrs. Kennedy, Lucy and Elinor’s long-suffering mother, has to be played by Lindsey Duncan (Ysbeau de Clermont in A Discovery of Witches). Only Duncan has the ability to convey the dissatisfaction, hypochondria, and appalling Edwardian snobbery of the wonderful Mrs. Kennedy!
Who is the perfect reader for A Dress of Violet Taffeta?
Someone who loves historical novels about strong women who take risks and break the rules. There are a lot of women characters in A DRESS OF VIOLET TAFFETA and most of them are real women who lived during the turn of the 19th century. It was an incredible time for women of determination!
Thank you again for taking the time to speak with me, Tessa! How can readers best connect with you?
Direct Message me on my Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/TessaArlen/
I am on Instagram: https://www.facebook.com/TessaArlen/
Find out more about my books on my webpage: http://www.tessaarlen.com/