Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Whitechapel Wagers: Romance, History, and Jack the Ripper

Victorian London is my evergreen preoccupation. I have been fascinated with the place and era so long it feels as much like home as the 21st century world around me. I admit I am not simply interested in the lavish decoration popular during the period, nor the elaborate bustled gowns in every color of the rainbow, nor the complex code of manners and social expectations Victorians held to so fiercely. What truly interests me are the dark edges of the period—the grit of industrialization that clogged the air, the dangerous excitement of new inventions, the resistance and rebelliousness of those who sought to shatter the class system into pieces, and the evils that plagued the growing metropolis, yet also led to innovations in crime detection.

Jack the Ripper by Angel Biljana
Teen fantasies of being a detective in the Victorian era scared my mother half to death, especially when I acquired books about Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, and famous poisoners of the period. On my first trip to London more than a decade ago, one of my first stops was The London Dungeon, a sort of live theater walk through performance that features Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper experiences, including convincing, period-costumed actors and piped in smells of stale beer and burnt sausages. Is it any wonder Victorian London's dark elements found their way into my stories when I set out to write a romance series? 

Mysteries, almost as much as romance, fascinate me, and the still unsolved mystery of Jack the Ripper's identity is a conundrum I still spend time reading about. Each new theory is interesting, if only to highlight the lure of solving a mystery, no matter how old. At the time, that mystery of his identity created a social anxiety, a fear he could be anyone and anywhere. That tension seemed an intriguing backdrop for my stories.

Like many who lived in and around Whitechapel in 1888, my characters work and struggle and fall in love. Some stories will touch on the murders more than others due to characters' involvement in the police force or journalism. But all will live or work in or be familiar with a place and period that still fascinates many of us to this day. If nothing else, the recent BBC televisions series, Ripper Street and Whitechapel, attest to that. 

My first novella in the Whitechapel Wagers Series, Scandalous Wager, released over the weekend and pits a devoted suffragist and Whitechapel charity worker, Lizzy Ainsworth, against Ian Reed, a detective inspector caught up in the Ripper investigation. Lizzy wagers with him for one night of passion, but he's not willing to settle for just one night.

Upcoming titles in the series include:

Dangerous Wager - Investigative journalist Jack Wynter bets his colleagues he can catch the Ripper, but his forays into Whitechapel only bring him face to face with the obstinate woman reporter whose heart he broke years before.

Wicked Wager - Lucy Lennox makes a bargain with the king of thieves, Derek Bellamy, and finds the greatest danger she faces in the Whitechapel underworld is losing her heart.

Wanton Wager - When scarred Afghan War veteran William Selsby agrees to take a friend's mistress off his hands, the woman he encounters in Whitechapel, Ada Hamilton, overturns all of his expectations and may be the one person who sees beyond his wounds.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Friday Frippery: James Tissot and 19th Century Art & Fashion

Paris Street, Rainy Day by Caillebotte, 1877
Recently I had the very great pleasure of visiting the Impression, Fashion, and Modernity exhibit at Chicago's Art Institute. The exhibit, focusing on the interplay of fashion and 19th century French artists, was the most lush and visually stunning museum event I have ever attended. From the moment I walked into the galleries, I was confronted with seven-feet-tall paintings that I had seen a hundred times, but only as small graphics in books or on the web. No reproduction can do justice to the poetic play of light and color in Impressionist paintings.

In the Conservatory by Bartholome, 1881
Mrs. Bartholome's dress
And the exhibit didn't just feature paintings. Throughout the galleries, I was also treated to the sight of clothes, hats, shoes, and all the other accoutrements of ladies' and men's fashion from the nineteenth century. One particular glass structure, like a long glass box, featured three beautiful bustled gowns. I stood for more minutes than my husband could tolerate studying the fine detail of design and stitching that resulted in layers, pleats, and ruffles galore. Some paintings had a partner, an exhibit platform next to the art that displayed either the very dress worn in the 19th century painting or a dress from the period that looked similar.

The exhibit focused largely on French Impressionist artists and featured one of my favorite artists, James Tissot. He was not an Impressionist and yet befriended many artists who were. The son of a draper and milliner, Tissot's paintings, like many 19th century French artists, reflect a preoccupation with fashion. The most striking aspect of many of his most famous work is the detailed and beautiful depiction of the elaborate women's fashions of the period.

Whether because of the political situation in Paris or simply to find new artistic prospects, Tissot left Paris and headed to London in 1871. He set up a home and studio in St. John's Wood, an area of London that was popular with artists at the time. He began painting portraits and created some of the most vibrant representations of late 19th century fashion and life of any artist of his time.

The Ball on Shipboard by Tissot, 1874.
The painting to the right, called The Ball on Shipboard, was painted in 1874, and highlights the elaborate fashions of the late Victorian era as well as the importance of appearance and the acquisition of fashionable clothing, depending on your social class or the class you aspired to.

The bustle is prominent, as are ruffles and dainty hats with ribbons and flowers. The two ladies in matching black and white frocks at the top of the stairs—sisters or best friends?—are particularly striking. But it's also hard to ignore the stripes, again black and white, of the woman in the lower left of the painting, looking our way yet not quite meeting our eye.

The Shop Girl by Tissot, 1883-5
One of my favorite Tissot paintings at the exhibit, nearly five feet tall and mesmerizing to look at, was The Shop Girl, painted in 1883-1885. It does not feature a woman of wealth who can afford the latest fashions from Paris. At the center of the painting is the kind of girl who served those women, helping them select the right ribbons or gloves, perhaps, to accent their beautiful gowns. She wears a simple yet lovely black dress and has a smile on her face, either welcoming the viewer or ushering you on your way. You choose. The world is bustling around her as a gentlemen peeks in the shop window and her co-worker reaches for a box from a high shelf, and yet she holds the viewer's eye and clearly captured Tissot's too, as he portrayed her so strikingly.

Are you fascinated by 19th century fashion, as artists like Tissot were? Do you have a favorite fashion trend during the Victorian era? It was a time of great change in all aspects of society, and fashion was no exception.