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history behind the book

I was so excited to get to revisit the world of the scandalous Fitzmannings from the anthology The Diamonds of Welbourne Manor! I started to think of the characters as friends, and wanted to know what happened to them after those stories closed. The Shy Duchess is the story of Nicholas, the Duke of Manning, and Lady Emily Carroll, a sensitive and caring woman of great beauty so paralyzed by shyness everyone calls her “The Ice Princess.” I loved seeing these two wounded souls find each other.

I also loved doing the research for the story (as always—research is my favorite thing!). I had to read about the lives and responsibilities of dukes, the history of childbirth, and for one very memorable scene the history of Vauxhall Gardens.

It all started with a visit to the British Museum, where I came across entrance tokens to the Gardens and old maps. It all sounded so mysterious and romantic, and I knew I had to set a scene there, but it wasn’t until I met Nicholas and Emily that I found the right time. They attend a masquerade ball, and find that behind the masks they can let their true passions run wild.

Vauxhall stood on the Surrey side of the Thames, accessible only by boat until Westminster Bridge was built in 1750. When first opened, it was only a few walks and arbors where suppers could be served, and admission was free. It was transformed when a man named Jonathan Tyers took over management in 1732. He oversaw an extensive remodeling and there was a grand reopening on June 7, 1732 with a Ridotto al Fresco, attended by Frederick, Prince of Wales. Tyers added grand supper boxes decorated with elaborate paintings (including some by Hogarth!), a large statue of Handel, arcades and a cascade, a music room, a Chinese pavilion, and a permanent orchestra.

An anonymous visitor in 1752 wrote, “The garden strikes the eye prodigiously; it is set with many rows of tall trees, kept in excellent order, among which are placed an incredible number of globe lamps, by which it is illuminated, and when they are lighted the sound of music ravishing the ear, added to the great resort of company so well-dressed and walking about…(there are) a great number of small booths which may contain about six or eight people apiece, where they commonly refresh themselves with sweetmeats, wine, tea, coffee, or suchlike.”

At first, the Gardens were open every day except Sundays from May until September. Admission was one shilling until 1792, when it went up to two. Vocal music, featuring some of the most famous performers of the day, started in 1745 with fireworks added in 1798. There were several grand galas in the Gardens’s history, including a masquerade in the “Venetian manner” to celebrate the end of the War of Austrian Succession, which Walpole wrote, “It has nothing Venetian in it, but was by far the best understood and prettiest spectacle that I ever saw.” In 1786, a jubilee was held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Gardens opening, attended by over 61,000 people in fancy dress, including the Prince of Wales. In 1813 there was a fete to celebrate Wellington’s victory at Vittoria, with admission set at a staggering two and a half guineas! In 1827 the Battle of Waterloo was recreated with a thousand solders.

The famous Vauxhall walks were made of gravel, and the Grand Walk was a stately avenue nine hundred feet long and thirty feet wide, parallel to the South Walk which was spanned with large triumphal arches and a trompe l’oeil painting of the ruins of Palmyra. There were rows of colonnades with the supper boxes facing the orchestra. There was also the Hermit’s Walk, with a transparency of a hermit in the doorway of a hut, and the Grand Cross Walk. Between the Grand Walk and the South Walk was the Grove. The Cascade was very popular, and could only be viewed at nine each evening for fifteen minutes. A bell signaled the time to view the spectacle.

The Gardens were open for the last time on July 25, 1859.

A few sources I used for The Shy Duchess include:

  • Walter Sidney Scott, Green Retreats: The Story of Vauxhall Gardens (1955)

  • ES Turner, Amazing Grace: The Great Days of Dukes (1975)

  • Amanda Vickery, The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England (1998)

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