Karen Harper is the author of the new historical novel American Duchess, which focuses on the life of Consuelo Vanderbilt, the American heiress who became Duchess of Marlborough. Harper's other novels include The It Girls and The Royal Nanny. She lives in Ohio.
Q: You note that you learned about Consuelo Vanderbilt while researching an earlier book. At what point did you decide to write American Duchess?
A: I am always searching for great, real-life heroines and usually center my novels on British women. However, as I read about Consuelo in the book To Marry an English Lord, (about American fortunes in exchange for British titles) it hit me: This woman is both an American and a British star.
Although she was forced to wed a man she didn’t love who tried to control her, she rose above it all, went her own way and did bold things.
And the timing turned out to be good: Although Consuelo’s background is a far cry from Meghan Markle’s, both women are strong and fascinating American duchesses.
Q: How did you research Consuelo’s life, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: As with all my heroines, I read books about her—even her autobiography, though a researcher has to be wary of those.
And the real boost for the book was that I had already been to two of the major fantastic settings for the novel: Blenheim Castle in England and a Vanderbilt “cottage” in Newport, Rhode Island.
Consuelo and her second husband lived in Paris for a while, also, and I was familiar with that area. Being in the places my heroine knew and loved (or hated!) really opened up her life for me.
Things that surprised me about Consuelo? I was hoping there would be some point in her life that would make for a suspenseful but happy ending to her story. Amazingly, she had to flee from the Nazis because she was on their “ransom” list, so that made an exciting conclusion to the novel.
Q: What do you see as the right balance between history and fiction in your writing?
A: I write what Alex Haley, the author of Roots, called “faction,” a well- researched story that does not deviate from basic facts, but is embellished by description, dialogue and scenes that may be fiction.
I love to write my historical novels in first person, so that the voice telling the story is the main character’s, the “I” thinking and telling us about her life. I have always loved history, and these faction novels are one way of bringing it—and its heroines—alive for the reader.
Q: What do you see as Consuelo’s legacy today?
A: An interesting question, especially because she left behind much more than beautiful places tastefully (but expensively!) decorated.
Partly because of her rabble-rousing mother, whom she did forgive later in life for her forced marriage, Consuelo had a role in getting women the vote in both the U.S. and England. On the estate of Blenheim, even as a young bride, she fought to change old ways to make charity build people up, not just keep them in their place.
Also, Consuelo was a friend and supporter of her husband’s cousin, Winston Churchill, even when he was down and out in British politics and during the dangers of World War II.
Her autobiography, The Glitter and the Gold, is a real life Downton Abbey for readers who like some background to that era. (Remember Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, was also a “dollar bride,” but that was a marriage that worked well.)
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am just completing a book on the woman most of us know as “The Queen Mum,” the mother of the current queen. My heroine was also a Queen Elizabeth. The book focuses on her marriage, family and her huge part in fighting the Nazis during World War II.
By the way, the title of the book, The Most Dangerous Woman in Europe, comes from Hitler’s name for her, because he feared her influence over King George and on Winston Churchill.
You may recall this Queen Elizabeth as the smiling, waving granny, but in her World War II years, she was so much more. And she had several secrets she fought to keep from the public and even from her own husband.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Because my early historical novels were mostly Elizabethan-era women, the fun of writing more recent heroines is that I can see them in photos, even videos, hear them speak.
Just Googling Consuelo Vanderbilt or Duchess of Marlborough opens up a whole new exciting realm of research that goes far beyond looking at paintings in museums or even on line.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb