Minor characters are like actors — they’re always negotiating for a bigger part. I have to confess, in my book, The Autumn Bride, a minor character ruthlessly upstaged the love-story. The poor hero didn’t get much of a look in for ages; in the first part of the book it’s all about my heroine, Abby, her sister and two friends — and a feisty old lady.
I have a weakness for feisty old ladies, I admit. There’s something about the Regency-era dowager that appeals to me — maybe, subconsciously I want to be a dowager when I grow up, and utter clever, pithy, snarky remarks. Like Maggie Smith’s character, the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley in Downton Abbey. Or maybe my grandmothers are haunting me — they were both very strong-minded old ladies.
Whatever the reason lurking in the dark depths of my psyche, strong-willed old ladies are always popping up in my books. None of them, however, have competed for stardom, as Lady Beatrice Davenham has. But she’s that kind of old lady.
For a start, there’s her name. She was married to a baron, so she ought to be called Lady Davenham, not Lady Beatrice. But she was born the only daughter of the Earl of Fenton, and the title of Lady Beatrice was hers by birthright. In the early months of her marriage people sometimes forgot her change of title and continued calling her Lady Beatrice and it annoyed her mother-in-law so much, she decided to keep on being Lady Beatrice. Get the idea?
Even when she first appeared in the story — a victim in truly pathetic circumstances — she refused to be pathetic. My heroine, Abby, is in a dire situation and, desperate for money, climbs into the open window on the second floor of a run-down mansion, looking for something to steal. Instead she finds Lady Beatrice:
“Have you come to kill me?” The hoarse whisper coming out of the darkness almost stopped Abby’s heart. She swung around, scanning the room, braced to flee. Nothing moved, only shadows lit by the faint shimmer of moonlight from the windows where she’d pulled back the curtains. No sign of anyone.
“I said, have you come to kill me?” It came from the bed. Sounding more irritated than frightened.
“No, of course not!” Abby whispered back. She tiptoed closer to the bed, straining her eyes in the darkness. What she’d taken for a bundle of clothes piled on the bed was an old woman lying awkwardly, fallen between her pillows, her bedclothes rumpled in a twist.
“You’re a gel. Wearing breeches, but I can still tell you’re a gel.”
“Yes.” Abby waited. If the woman screamed or tried to raise the alarm she’d dive out of the window. It was risky, but better than being hanged or transported.
“You’re not here to kill me?”
Abby blinked. “Pity?”
She’s been ill, you see, and is bedridden and wholly in the power of lazy, neglectful and dishonest servants. After a few more nocturnal visits, the old lady invites Abby and her sisters to move in with her — and they do, posing as her nieces, and sacking the horrid servants and putting the house, and Lady Beatrice to rights. It’s all going beautifully until Lady Beatrice’s nephew — her only living relative—arrives after years abroad and demands to know the truth.
“Who the devil are they?” Max said when the door was finally shut.
“I told you, my nieces.”
“Nonsense, you don’t have any nieces. Who are they really?”
She shrugged in a manner he recognized of old. “If I say they’re my nieces, they are.”
“You forget who you’re talking to, Aunt Bea. I’ll take an oath those girls aren’t even related to one another, let alone you.”
She gave him a warm smile. “Dear boy, so lovely to have you home again. Now, tell me what you’ve been up to. What’s brought you back to England after all this time? Going to settle down with a nice gel and make me a great-aunt, are you?”
“Don’t change the subject.”
She smacked his hand. “Don’t be dreary, Max. I’ve told you they’re my nieces and that’s all you need to know.
* * * * *
So what about you? Do you enjoy old ladies in stories? Do you have any favorites, perhaps like Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey? Any other wonderful old ladies in your life? And when you reach old-ladyhood, what are you looking forward to? I’ll give a copy of The Autumn Bride to someone who leaves a comment.
Anne Gracie spent her childhood and youth on the move, thanks to her father’s job, which took them around the world. The gypsy life taught her that humor & love are universal languages and that favorite books can take you home, wherever you are.
Anne started her first novel while backpacking solo around the world. Originally published by Harlequin, she’s since written nine ST historical romances for Berkley and a novelization of the first “The Tudors” TV series. Anne is a former president of Romance Writers of Australia, a three time RITA finalist, has twice won the Romantic Book of the Year (Australia) and the National Reader’s Choice Award (USA) and has been listed in Library Journal (USA) best books of the year. Visit Anne’s website or her FB page for lots more info!