Duchess By Design :: Author’s Note
My guiding principle as a novelist has always been to write the books that I want to read, and Duchess by Design is no exception. As someone who adores historical romance and my hometown of Manhattan, it was inevitable that I write a romance set in historical New York. I chose the Gilded Age because it had the glittering parties, pretty dresses, outrageous fortunes, and high society that so many of us love in a classic Regency romance. But it was also a time when so many people were fighting for things we have long taken for granted—the right to vote, the right to an eight-hour workday, and the protection of the environment, among other important causes. It’s also the perfect time period for the heroines and heroes with fierce activist spirits that I want to write happy ever afters for.
Some notes on the history in this novel . . .
The Ladies of Liberty club is modeled on The Sorosis Society, a women’s club founded in 1868 by Jane Cunningham Croly after women were barred from a New York Press Club dinner. According to The New York Times this club “inaugurated and epitomized the women’s club movement and was itself one of the most influential organizations for women in late nineteenth-century America.” Their purpose was to further the educational and social opportunities of women. The members included activists, writers, female physicians and ministers, a fashion magazine editor, businesswomen, and even Emily Warren Roebling, the woman who oversaw the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. While Sorosis membership tended to be upper-class white women, I have made the choice to diversify my fictional ladies club with the inclusion of the real-life African-American millionaire businesswoman, Madam C. J. Walker (she has an amazing story—look it up!).
On Dukes and dollar princesses: This was a real trend. The most notable example is the Duke of Marlborough’s marriage to Conseulo Vanderbilt in 1895 (it was definitely not a love match). But there were many, many others. For further reading, I suggest To Marry An English Lord: Tales of Wealth and Marriage, Sex and Snobbery, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace.
On pockets: I did not entirely fabricate the drama around pockets in a woman’s dress. Of course pockets, or something like it, had long existed. There was definitely discussion around the inclusion of them in women’s dress—the chapter epigraph about pockets from The New York Times is real and dates from 1899. The rational dress movement was real, as progressive women recognized that respectable female attire physically limited their ability to move around the world. Interestingly, it was the bicycle that really changed women’s fashions (but that’s another story for another day!).
Miss Van Allen’s advocacy for birds and feather-free fashion was inspired by the real-life women who were outraged by the slaughter of birds for the millinery trade and who campaigned to end the use of feathers in fashion in order to protect dwindling bird species. The first such organization, The Massachusetts Audubon Society, was formed in 1896, so I have taken a slight liberty with the dates. Many other Audubon Societies followed, and together they achieved passage of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Interestingly, some scholars have noted that the trend toward short hair for women did more to end the trend of large feathered hats than anything else.
On Free Love: The speech Adeline attends in Union Square draws directly from the work and words of real-life activist Emma Goldman. As a young woman, Emma reportedly left home with her sewing machine in one hand and five dollars in the other and made her way to New York City. (As one does.) In the 1890s, this anarchist, activist, speaker, and champion of women’s economic freedom was living and working on New York City’s Lower East Side as a nurse and midwife. In the speech she delivers in my novel, I took the liberty of a quoting from her essay “Marriage and Love,” even though it was published in 1914, since it is likely she spoke about these ideas earlier. The radical notion of “free love” (essentially that relationships should be based on love, not on economic or legal reasons) dates back to a particularly scandalous 1871 speech by Victoria Woodhull, so the concept would have been known in 1895. I should also note that the epigraph that starts that chapter is taken from real-life daring girl reporter Nelly Bly’s interview with Emma Goldman for the The New York World.
All other New York World snippets I made up. For more on my research, check out Maya’s Must Reads: Researching The Gilded Age.