Anne here, introducing my friend Sophie Page, who's written one of the best of the books timed to come out for the royal wedding — TO MARRY A PRINCE. Sophie has written many category romances as Sophie Weston. In real life, she's Jenny Haddon, former chair of the Romantic Novelists Association of the UK, co-author of Getting the Point, a guide to punctuation, and woman of many parts. She lives in the heart of London.
The book starts with a classic "cute meet". Bella, the heroine, has been out of the country for a couple of years, counting fish on a tropical island. She returns to London and stays with her best friend Lottie, a rising, savvy PR girl. After a swift makeover and dressed in second-hand clothes, she goes with Lottie to a Very Posh Party. Jet lagged and a little overwhelmed by the crowd, she retreats to a deserted courtyard, only to bring down a curtain of ivy and several major potted plants. And out of the shadows steps a rescuer …
'I think you'd better get out of there.'
'I'm trying,' said Bella between her teeth. She was tearing at the ivy that had wound itself round her ankle. But the more fiercely she tore, the faster she seemed to be caught. 'This damned stuff won't let me go.'
'Let's have a look.'
He hunkered down and considered her foot. From where she was sprawled she saw that he had springy dark hair. It looked as if it would sizzle to touch. And she was right, that shirt was silk. Nothing else had that sheen. Pearly white silk, as pure as snow, and here she was, looking like a compost heap. It was enough to make a girl weep.
'Have I got twigs in my hair?'
But he was concentrating. 'Hmm. You're certainly tied in pretty tight. Wonder if this ivy is carnivorous?'
'Thank you for that thought.'
'No problem.' He slid a finger under one of the tendrils and she yelped, as much from surprise as the increasing constriction. He looked up quickly and she had the impression of dark, laughing eyes and a determined expression.
'No help for it. In the absence of a knife, I shall have to tear it off with my teeth.'
He was serious?
He was serious. He bent his head.
After a couple of brief meetings, Bella sees her his photo in a magazine and realizes who her mystery admirer is. Of course, he's a prince, and not just any old prince of the sort you often find lurking in darkened courtyards, but the Prince, the Prince of Wales, heir to the throne. Her reaction isn't what you might expect.
She dropped the phone on the table top and rummaged for a hankie. She couldn't find one, so she blew her nose hard on one of the café's paper napkins instead. Granny Georgia would have called it sordid and Georgia would have been right, she thought.
The phone rang again. She glared at it. But in the end she answered.'What?'
'You know, then.' He sounded chastened.
'Know? What do I know? I saw your photo in The Despatch and I know who you are, if that's what you mean.'
He groaned. 'Hell!'
'But I don't know why you wanted to play games like that. It's not honourable and it's not kind.' Her voice scraped. She wasn't going to let him hear her crying. Hell, she wasn't going to cry. She cut the call fast.
And stocked up on café paper napkins. She even managed to drink some of the latte before he rang again.
'Bella, don't hang up,' he said as soon as she answered.
'How do you know my name's Bella?'
'You told me yesterday when I rang.'
'Oh.' That took the wind out of her sails a bit.
'Look, I've handled this badly, I admit.'
'Oh, I don't know.' She sounded brittle and sophisticated, she thought. Also very angry. 'I think you handled it very well. Kept the girl distracted, avoided giving her a name, even when she asked. And she still didn't twig what a liar you are.'
That stung him. 'I didn't lie!'
'Yes you bloody did,' she yelled. 'And you know it.'
This time she not only cut the call, she threw the phone at the cafe wall, where it broke into bits.
Well, at least it gave her something to do. She went to buy a replacement, a smartphone this time. She'd got a job now.
It rang as soon as the chip was in place.
'Ignore it,' she told the startled salesman. 'A nuisance caller.'
And so we're off to a gorgeous, fun, rocky courtship.
Anne: Your heroine is a delight, and I loved her family as well — her famous explorer father who's also a rabid anti-royalist, her mother the snob who can't wait to show off the Prince to the golf club ladies, her stepfather who's cautious but kind. And then there's the best friend, Lottie, and the various members of the prince's household. You do minor characters so well. Who was your favourite?
Sophie: I never think of them as minor characters, they're just people with their own story going on somewhere else. In this book, I have to admit I have a weakness for the King. I didn't plan it—I thought he was going to be just another inarticulate middle aged Englishman who didn't do soppy stuff like feelings. But then I found he had a passion for steam engines and ran away from string quartets and suddenly he was a real person. And then, when I never expected it, he started to critique Richard's strategy for proposing to Bella and that made me laugh so much I couldn't bear to cut it out. But he has a thoughtful, rather sad side, too, which I didn't discover for a very long time.
Anne: Yes, the King was wonderful. Another thing I enjoyed about this book was the research you obviously put into it. You didn't just make up a convenient monarchy, you devised a very plausible alternative history for Britain. Tell us a little about it.
Sophie: I've always loved history and the Georgian/Regency period is a favourite. So much started then – scientific discoveries, political ideas, travel, and the Congress of Vienna in 1815 reconfigured Europe. So I suppose I see it as a turning point, and that is why I went back to that period for the origins of an alternative monarchy, as opposed to the Tudors or the Stewarts, or even the Plantagenets.
But I also felt a personal connection with the Regent's daughter, Princess Charlotte, who was a favourite of my mother's, after she saw Charlotte's alarming tomb at Windsor. Charlotte died in childbirth in 1817, aged 21. She was the only legitimate heir of King George III at the time. Victoria's parents did not marry until after her death. Indeed, Princess Charlotte's sister-in-law, the bossy Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, married the ageing Duke of Kent precisely in order to achieve an heir, and Victoria was the result.
I like Princess Charlotte, who had a very thin time of it as a young girl, and I was glad to give her a happier ending. So I imagined that she and her baby son survived, she and Prince Leopold had several more children; that she succeeded George IV, with Leopold as her Prince Consort; and that she reigned in her own right until she abdicated in favour of her son Frederick in 1869. The Hanoverians had a bad record in terms of getting on with their sons, and I thought that Charlotte, tempered by Leopold might just break that particular curse. When she got into a paddy he used to calm her down, saying 'Doucement chérie, doucement.' So she nicknamed him Doucement. It sounds a nice, friendly marriage. He was certainly devastated when she died.
I gave her a country retreat in Scotland (not Balmoral, which was bought by Queen Victoria) because she loved dogs and horses and a good party, and no one does New Year like the Scots. Drummon House figures in To Marry a Prince, as does the royal New Year party. I don't know whether I was flattered or appalled when a Scottish friend emailed me this week to say she'd been to parties like that!
(For more about Princess Charlotte go here.)
Anne: Tell us about the hero of this book, Prince Richard.
Sophie: Oh he's a total sweetheart. I know that dark and damn-your-eyes is more immediately sexy but I really like good guys. I could see him as a small boy, terribly serious and wanting to look after his younger brother and sister, while his parents struggled with the really awful old grandfather King, who was totally wilful and more than a bit of a throwback, frankly.
So Prince Richard is really hard working and responsible and determined to do a good job but he's never learned to kick back and have fun or think too much about the things he wants for himself. When he meets Bella and she doesn't know who he is, for the first time in his life he's just a guy chatting up a girl at a party. And that unlocks a completely new side of his personality and he finds himself doing things that he never expected—and enjoying it. Though there's still quite an unreconstructed part of him that expects to order people around, including Bella, and it gets out of hand when he's trying to take care of her. He has to work on that.
Anne: Something that sets this book above so many of the common-girl-marries-royal-prince stories I've read, is that you deal quite realistically with some of the problems such a relationship would have -- the twitter/on-line community, the press, and particularly the "behind palace walls" etiquette and procedure, and how it impacts on the relationship.
Sophie: I really don't know anything about current Royal protocol and I didn't want to research the present Court too closely, because this is a fantasy. But I had memories of various diaries I had read—like poor Fanny Burney being urged by Mrs Delany to converse with the Queen.'The Queen often complains to me of the great difficulty with which she can get any conversation, as she not only has to start the subject but commonly entirely to support it. And there is nothing she so much loves as conversation. And nothing she finds to hard to get.' That seemed like a sensible Court Rule: only the King or Queen can change the subject. It would keep the hundreds of people they meet every year from being too personal or political—or boring on for ever about their stamp collection. But it would be very difficult to adjust to, if you were used to the usual give and take of conversation.
As for celebrity, well I think that's the curse of our age. Everyone can see how people's private lives and even their sense of themselves, can be skewed by indiscreet photographs and unwary remarks appearing in the press. Purely by chance, and for a quite different and very sad reason, I had members of the Press ringing my doorbell a few years ago. It's a shock—and it doesn't take long to feel paranoid when a News journalist appears on your doorstep and there's a guy with a shoulder cam trained on you standing behind her. My imagination made that jump very easily.
(For more about the alternative history Sophie created for this book, go here.)
Anne: This is your first single title, isn't it? I hope we'll be seeing more Sophie Page books in future. And so now we come to the Big Question: what will you be doing for the royal wedding?
Sophie: London is just beginning to buzz about the Royal Wedding. My street is planning a street party—bouncy castles, the lot. There will be lots of screens in pubs and cafés and at least two big free screens in Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park, where people will be able to watch the wedding from inside the Abbey. And only this morning I got an email from a smart London restaurant, which is offering a Royal Wedding Day package, starting with Royal Breakfast on the Terrace, the wedding itself screened live, and then a Gastronomic Experience for lunch afterwards.
One of the nicest things, if you live in London, is to catch sight of the mounted escorts practising on their beautiful horses. I was walking through St James's Park in the sunshine and heard the jingle of harness and the clippety clop of hooves—and as I came round the corner, there they were, riding down the Mall, very correct, with just the odd horse snorting at the early morning traffic. Lovely!
Anne : Sounds gorgeous. Thank you so much for joining us on Word Wenches.
Sophie: My pleasure, Anne. Thank you for inviting me.
And now for readers, Sophie will be giving away a copy of TO MARRY A PRINCE to someone who leaves a comment. Will you be watching the wedding of Kate and Prince William or not? Did you watch the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana? What royal weddings have you seen? Share your royal stories.