Carol Wallace has written more than 20 books, including the New York Times bestseller, To Marry an English Lord, which was an inspiration for the Downton Abbey TV series.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and in Binge Reading today Carol talks about her latest historical fiction, Our Kind of People. It’s set in the Gilded Age New York and brings the class wars of Downton Abbey to Manhattan.
We’ve got our usual free book giveaway this week. Another joint author promotion of whodunnit mysteries on The Joys of Binge Reading free giveaway. Links for these books and all the details for other subjects discussed in this episode can be found on our website, www.thejoysofbingereading.com.
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Links in this episode:
Gilded Age New York: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilded_Age
New York’s Elevated Railway – the “El”
Gilded Age Society – the 400: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Four_Hundred_(Gilded_Age)
To Marry An English Lord: https://www.amazon.com/Marry-English-Lord-Marriage-Snobbery/dp/0761171959ery
Julian Fellowes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_Fellowes
The Gilded Age TV series: https://www.hbo.com/the-gilded-age
Carol Wallace: Ben Hur: The Tale of the Christ.
Lew Wallace: (Carol’s great-great-grandfather): https://www.ben-hur.com/meet-lew-wallace/
Robert G Ingersoll: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_G._Ingersoll
Lew Wallace and Battler of Shiloh: https://digitalcommons.wku.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=stu_res_jour
How the scapegoat of Shiloh became America’s best-selling novelist: (from Slate)
Leaving Van Gogh: https://www.amazon.com/Leaving-Van-Gogh-Carol-Wallace/dp/1400068797/
Vincent Van Gogh’s doctor: https://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/artworks/le-docteur-paul-gachet-751
Susan Hill: Simon Serrailler series
Lee Child latest: Better Off Dead https://www.amazon.com/Better-Off-Dead-Reacher-Novel-ebook/dp/B08SBMCSQQ
Angela Thirkell: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/142160.Angela_Thirkell
Where to find Carol:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to the show notes in The Joys of Binge Reading.com for important mentions.
Introducing historical author Carol Wallace
Jenny Wheeler: Hello there Carol, and welcome to the show. It’s so good to have you with us.
Carol Wallace: Jenny, it is such a pleasure to be speaking to you from New York City. It is almost amazing to think that we can get to each other across our computers.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s absolutely right. We both know but I’d like to mention that I found you through a New York podcast called The Gilded Gentleman in which you spoke very entertainingly about your deep understanding of New York history.
We are going to be talking about your latest book today, which is Our Kind of People, which is a historical fiction related to the Gilded Age and the transition of the generations from the old money and the rather staid old New York to the new money. Tell us a bit about Our Kind of People.
Carol Wallace: First of all, I have to say that you recapitulated the subject very gracefully there. Our Kind of People is set in New York in the 1870s which is when industrial money starts to flow into the city in a big way.
The families that have been in social charge of New York, like the Asters for example – big name here in New York City – whose money had mostly come from banking or real estate, have to face up to being displaced socially by families who made their money in different industries for example, or different ways of making much bigger fortunes.
It is a clash between a more genteel past and a more rough and tumble present, which recapitulates itself, certainly in New York, over and over again, and I’m willing to bet it happens in New Zealand as well.
Genteel past to rough-and-tumble present
Jenny Wheeler: Definitely, yes. We’ve had periods here, the 1980s in particular, when there was a new rise, on a much smaller scale of course, of our own little petty barons who took over the city in a way.
The Wilcox family has two daughters, Jemima and Alice, and they are both reaching that very important age when they’re going to be debutantes and seeking out a husband that’s suitable, matches their own social status and purpose.
Just at that point, the family suffers a bit of a setback, which makes them a little less desirable socially. It sets up a wonderful confrontation about the way these two parts of society were interrelating and weaving together. Tell us about that. It’s very much a US setting for a similar thing to Downton Abbey, in a way.
Carol Wallace: It is, although I did my best to steer somewhat clear. Basically, the social story in the US, as in the UK at the turn of the century, is about old money and new money. That’s what we see in Our Kind of People.
In order to create a plot, you have to put your characters under pressure. I knew I wanted to write about the social conflicts between old and new money as New York began to change, and it seemed like a good idea to be writing about young women. I didn’t want to write an office story. Offices are not interesting. On the other hand, clothes to me are very interesting, and parties and flirtations and matchmaking.
Two very different sisters in light satire
That’s why I set this cast of characters up the way I did, and it was helpful to have two girls of very different characters going through the process of being presented to society. This was still a big deal in New York in those days, as it was in fact when I was growing up in suburban Connecticut in the 1970s. It was a social pattern I was familiar with, but back in the 1870s it had real significance whereas in the 1970s, when I was growing up, it was just a ghost of a process.
Jenny Wheeler: You have a wonderful, light, satirical touch. You call your books social comedy and it’s very appropriate. You have such an intimate understanding of the funny little things that might make you frowned upon – like the wrong color braid on a dress or something, very significant little details that are mentioned there.
One of them was this odious task they had every day of writing hand written thank you notes for invitations they had received. Tell us about your own time a hundred years later and those sorts of conventions. They were still lingering on.
Vestiges of old New York etiquette
Carol Wallace: They were absolutely lingering on, Jenny. I had to write thank you notes. My poor mother. I’m the middle of three girls and what she went through to get us to write those notes. There was a theory that at Christmas, by the time we went to bed, we ought to have written the thank you notes to all of our grandparents and our godparents who had sent us gifts. I was the compliant one, but my other sisters were rebels and she could never actually make that stick.
That was just one of the ways. There were all these strictures, again in the 1970s, about clothes – how long your dress was if you were going to dance in school. If you were going to dance at school and you were going to put your hand on a boy’s shoulder, would your dress ride up so much that the tops of your stockings would be exhibited? Tiny little details like that – there was no end to it.
Jenny Wheeler: Also playing a big part in the story is the girls’ father. He is a person who has risen through the ranks from a fairly low beginning, and he has this very ambitious business scheme related to the elevated railway or the El, which was a real thing that got built from the bottom of town up through to Harlem during this period.
Tell us about the El. Although 60% of our audience is in the States, people in New Zealand and quite a few people outside of the US and even some younger ones within the US may not have ever heard of the El. It was a huge thing from the late 60s on, wasn’t it?
The days of New York’s elevated railway
Carol Wallace: It was. Part of the issue was that the streets were so congested in ways that we would be very hard put to imagine. Bear in mind that first of all, there are no cars so it’s all wagons so there are horses. If there are horses, there is manure. Right away, the streets are physically a mess, so it’s very difficult for a woman, certainly, to drag her skirt across the street, let alone what she might be walking in.
Furthermore, the idea of traffic control that we have, that you stay in your lane, no, no, no. There was none of that. The elevated railway presented a way for the ordinary working people, not people sitting in private carriages, to get from one end of town to another.
As I wrote this book, I wanted the father of my girl characters to suddenly make quite a bit of money, and when I figured out that the El fitted into my timeframe, I practically danced a jig, because he needed a big capital project. He needed to get rich off it very quickly, so that was what I chose – the elevated railway.
Then I had the amazing good luck of finding some History major’s PhD thesis online, all about the elevated railway. I read it with enormous care and it was extremely helpful, so some of the circumstantial details came from that.
Landmarks which show the El remnants today
Also, there are places in New York where our Metro or subway or whatever you call inner city mass transit, still does go above the highways. There’s a place at 125th Street where you have to walk way down several flights of stairs to where you actually want to be. That’s left over from the El.
Jenny Wheeler: So it was a railway that was actually up there on pylons above head level?
Carol Wallace: Yes, up there on pylons, running along Ninth Avenue to begin with and also on the East Side eventually. It changed the city because people could get to their work much more easily.
Jenny Wheeler: In the back of your book you have some questions for book club readers, and one of them was, what were your favorite scenes in the book? One of my favorite scenes was when Joseph’s wife finally gets on the El and travels on it. It’s like a revelation. This has been a big point of conflict in the marriage because he sinks a lot of money into it, and at one point he looks like he might lose the lot.
When it all comes right – although I hope I’m not spoiling the story too much here – she gets on the El and suddenly she has this understanding about its importance to the city and why it was such a great thing. Suddenly she is so proud of her husband and what he’s achieved. That’s a lovely scene.
Carol Wallace: Thank you. I’m so glad to hear you say that. It was a late entry. I sort of wrote it out of the blue. The scene wrote itself, and several people have told me exactly what you did – that it was a real pleasure to read and that somehow it was exhilarating.
I’m really glad I was able to make it exhilarating, because one of the best things about what I do for a living is that I get to live as my characters. When it works really well, I am Helen Wilcox on that train with my fingers on the keyboard. I’m not even aware of where else I am. I’m just rattling down the street to the southern point of Manhattan and it’s like time travel. It’s great.
Family secrets played out in society
Jenny Wheeler: That does come through. The other thing that’s lovely about the book is that Helen and her two daughters have a different view of life. It’s like any family, the same would happen today, but that comes very nicely through the generational exchange that’s going on there between the daughters. They do the thing all adolescents do, they do things behind their mother’s back, secretly, that she doesn’t know anything about and would be absolutely shocked if she knew about them.
That dimension also at the domestic level, this little thing that’s playing out on the macro level, is shown in that family.
Carol Wallace: I think that is true, and this was always the case. In a family, siblings act against each other. They rub against each other, and perhaps if there’s a goody-goody, then the next child will be more rebellious or vice versa. You do see that playing out with these two girls. One of them is far more conventional than the other. One of them is a risk taker, and they act accordingly throughout the book.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s right. You have written 20 other books, and obviously we don’t have a chance to go into all of those, and quite a wide range from nonfiction to humor, to parenting books. One of them that made you very famous was called To Marry an English Lord, and it has been credited by Julian Fellowes as one of the inspirations for his Downton Abbey series originally.
To Marry An English Lord best seller
What was the inspiration for this book, and did you have a feeling that you wanted to translate some of the research you’d become so aware of with To Marry an English Lord into the local New York environment? Tell us about To Marry an English Lord, for starters.
Carol Wallace: For starters, To Marry an English Lord I wrote with a friend of mine whom I had gotten to know years earlier at my very first job. It was her idea. She came to me one day and said, wouldn’t it be fun if we could write about this historical phenomenon?
We batted it around for a while and nothing much happened. Then, eventually, we were both free at the same time, so she went off to England to do the British side of the research and, as it happened, met a man who would later become her husband. Every step of the way of writing this book was somehow, hurry up and wait, start and stop.
It is still a mystery somewhat to me how we managed to do it together, because the writing style seems quite clear to me, quite smooth. Gail did a lot of the English research. There are a lot of visual pieces that she was primarily in charge of. The more research we did, the more we realized that it was a really entertaining phenomenon that shed light on both sides of the Atlantic, on the history at that time.
The most famous Vanderbilt marriage
There was the bit about the American money, and there was also the bit about the British economy, particularly in the upper classes. Families who were above working, socially, were suddenly running out of money. What you would get is well-born Englishmen coming to New York to take their pick of the lovely, young, wealthy heiresses. It made for a great story and a great book, if I do say so.
Jenny Wheeler: Consuelo Vanderbilt was one of the most notorious of those matches at this time.
Carol Wallace: Yes, Consuelo is notorious because she is one of the wealthiest of the girls whose fate we’re talking about, but also because Consuelo had the last word. She ended up writing.
Let me backtrack. Her mother was very ambitious. She was a Vanderbilt, so all that Vanderbilt money, of which a lot was real estate. The Vanderbilt money was one of the biggest fortunes in New York, so she was obviously a very eligible young lady. Mrs. Vanderbilt took it into her head that she wanted to find a very aristocratic English husband for her daughter, Consuelo. This was in 1895, at the tail end of this phenomenon.
Somehow word got out to the Duke of Marlborough – one of the young dukes who had inherited a very large house and almost no money. Word got out that Consuelo was eligible and he came over to the United States, spent a summer in New York City and in Newport, and proposed to Consuelo toward the end.
A New York heiress and an English Duke
She was so afraid of her mother and so brow-beaten that she went ahead and married the guy. It was a miserable marriage for both parties, so it’s very sad. It’s glamorous, but sad.
Jenny Wheeler: There is a story about how she cried her heart out and went to the altar with red eyes because she’d been crying all morning.
Carol Wallace: Truthfully, I take that with a bit of skepticism. Consuela did, as I said, write her own story and maybe her eyes were red or maybe she wanted to add some drama. She did have, I think I recall, a ghost writer for that book. I don’t know for sure, but she certainly made the most of the drama.
Jenny Wheeler: Amongst your large backlist is one book I really love to mention, and that is your revamping of Ben Hur. You did a revamp of Ben Hur for the 21st century, and you were involved with that because you had a very special connection with the original book. It was your great, great grandfather, Lew Wallace, who wrote the first Ben Hur.
I must admit that before I became aware of your association with it, I only thought about Charlton Heston in association with Ben Hur, but there was an amazing backstory about how the original book happened. It became one of the bestselling books in all time. Lew was in his fifties and a bit down on his cups when he got the idea of writing it, wasn’t he? Tell us about that.
Carol’s famous ancestor – Lew Wallace
Carol Wallace: He was. It was after the Civil War. He had come from a family in Indiana, and his war had not been a particularly successful one. He had had, however, a real taste for adventure and it had been, in a way, whetted by the Civil War. He was taking a train. In America in those days, the distances were so vast and everybody had to take these train trips.
He was on his way to an army reunion and he met a man named Robert Ingersoll who was a big speechifier in those days, a debating celebrity. Ingersoll was an agnostic. One of the things he liked to argue about was that he was skeptical about the divinity of Christ.
Sitting next to him on this train, Lew Wallace was driven to re-examine his Christian faith. In those days he was more or less just a conventional church goer. Lew dipped himself into very intense research and storytelling. I think that is how he, as a reader, processed things, and the result was Ben Hur.
We tend to think of Ben Hur the movie as the chariot race or the shipwreck, but in point of fact the plot involves a young Jewish prince and his struggle against the Romans who were at that point occupying Judea. The people who made the movie went for the greater drama, as of course you would, but I would argue that Lew had gone for a more spiritual take on the whole thing.
The family legacy of Ben Hur
Jenny Wheeler: Growing up as a young woman, did you have any great sense of this legacy? Is that one of the things that made you became a writer yourself?
Carol Wallace: I think truthfully, it really was, Jenny. We had copies of the book in I can’t tell you how many languages. People who would find them at book sales would send them to us or give them to us. We also had a huge bound set of annals of the Civil War that covered Lew’s war career – very, very dull, but beautifully bound.
That was a really big presence. Also that book made a very considerable sum of money. Sometimes my father used to joke that Ben Hur was sending us to college. I don’t know if that’s true, but it meant a great deal to me to have that example to think of as an ancestor.
Jenny Wheeler: In the Civil War he was one of the generals at Shiloh, which was an incredibly hard-fought battle. The Union, and he was on the Union side, did finally win, but with huge loss of life and it almost sounds like he was made a scapegoat by his commander at that time.
The Civil War battle that nearly ruined him
Carol Wallace: It did sound somewhat like that. It’s hard to know. There are no records of exactly where he was or who was involved. Certainly he did not show up where he was expected at the time he was supposed to be there, but there could have been any number of reasons for that. I think he was a man for whom things had gone right more or less until then, and that was quite a shock, hard to take.
Jenny Wheeler: The other famous one I want to mention before we move on is you also wrote a book about Vincent van Gogh. You have had an amazing spread in the topics you’ve tackled, and this one was unusual because it only took the last period of his life and examined what went on there. Tell us how you got drawn into that story.
Carol Wallace: I will point out one thing here, Jenny, which is that these are all stories set in the 19th century. I don’t stray too far from that period, which I find deeply fascinating.
The Vincent van Gogh thing came about because I got a degree in Art History from Columbia University in my late thirties and wrote my thesis about a doctor named Gachet who had been the physician to a number of artists. One of them was Vincent van Gogh, and part of my research for the thesis was going to this little town in France called Auvers where Vincent had spent his last days.
Carol’s deep study of Vincent Van Gogh
It was strangely affecting in that for some reason they have preserved Vincent’s little house where he was living. I was there at a time of year when it was quite empty, and I was going up the stairs to see the bedroom where he had apparently died. I was alone there except for a woman who came out of the room as I was going in and she looked at me and said, it’s just too sad.
All it was, was an empty room, and yet somehow the spirit of the death, the spirit of the people who had loved Vincent – he was apparently a very lovable man when he wasn’t driving you crazy – was all right there. That prompted me to stick with that book, which was a hard one to write because it was so deeply unhappy.
Jenny Wheeler: It is still controversial today, whether he committed suicide or whether he was murdered, and exactly what his fragile emotional state related to. I know you have said you think part of it was a bipolar condition. Do you think, if he was a current artist today, we would have seen the same outcomes or would he have got the same treatment?
Carol Wallace: It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? From what I’ve understood, some of the medical treatments, for example, for schizophrenia or bipolar disorder do tend to flatten people’s sense of creativity. If that were to have been the case, then perhaps we might not have seen some of those ravishing canvases we did see.
Carol as reader – her favorite books
But it’s arguable. We can’t tell. Certainly he suffered through tremendous highs and lows and there are books and scholarly novels about what might exactly have been his malady. He probably could have been treated by our standards today, but there’s no way to know how that would have affected his creative process.
Jenny Wheeler: It’s interesting. Just this morning on our news here, there’s been new research. One of the things it showed was that antidepressants, for example, taken over a two-year period, make no difference at all. The outcome at two years is the same as if you didn’t have to take them. I know it’s slightly different from bipolar.
We are starting to run out of time, so let’s turn to Carol as reader. It’s called The Joys of Binge Reading because we like to recommend to our listeners books they might like to discover for themselves, mainly in the area of popular fiction.
Susan Hill and Lee Child amongst best
I’m sure you’ve done a lot of reading that isn’t popular fiction, but I know you do read some popular fiction because I’ve seen your blogs on people like Lee Child. Tell us about your own reading tastes and make a couple of recommendations for listeners.
Carol Wallace: I do read a lot of murder mysteries and at the moment, I’m reading one of the Susan Hill Simon Serrailler series. Lee Child is a real favorite of mine.
The murder mystery series I am really fond of. I like them to be not too ghoulish. I like very thoughtful ones. I also love reading mid-20th century English middlebrow fiction.
Jenny Wheeler: You did mention earlier that you are a secret admirer of Georgette Heyer.
Carol Wallace: Not so secret. I have all her books. Another one I love is Angela Thirkell. I don’t know if she’s still read at all, but she was very popular in the 30s and 40s. I have all her books in physical copies, which is quite unusual. They don’t have to be all that interesting or all that contemporary. They just have to keep me pleasantly entertained. That is pretty much what I’m looking for.
Jenny Wheeler: Fantastic. We didn’t get into talking about what specifically got you started on fiction, but looking back over your career as a fiction author, are you happy with the way things turned out or is there anything you’d go back and change if you had the opportunity?
Is there anything Carol Wallace would change?
Carol Wallace: That’s a wonderful question. I’m very happy to be able to say that I am really delighted. I had not written much fiction. I wrote two novels of romantic suspense back in the 80s, and it says a lot about the New York City publishing world that I could get them published in those days, because they aren’t very good.
I’m not a good plotter by any means. They had great atmosphere and the romances were delightful, but in terms of suspense, I fall flat on that one. That would never have worked for me. To be able to have written a book as serious as Leaving Van Gogh, and for that to get published, was quite startling. I don’t know that it would have happened now. The book publishing industry has contracted somewhat and a serious, fairly downbeat discussion of Van Gogh’s mental illness would be hard to sell in the US now.
With Our Kind of People I had to write the whole book before I could sell it to a publisher. I might have had to rewrite it for the editor. I don’t remember this part very clearly, so that may not be the case, but I was delighted to be able to sell Our Kind of People. I’m working on, not a sequel, but a linked book that takes place 10 years later, set in New York in the early 1880s. There might be some linked characters, there might not. There will be some new ones.
What’s coming next for author Carol Wallace
It’s titled She Calls Herself a Widow, which I quite like. It’s about a character who is a big deal both in New York City and in Southern California, named Arabella Huntington, who had a very colorful past. She is an actual character, and there might be some overlap with characters from Our Kind of People. Last time we saw Nick Wilcox in Our Kind of People, he was at loose ends and I’ve found something for him to do and collect a paycheck, so that could be kind of fun. He could be a loose cannon, I think.
It will be set a little further uptown and by the 1880s New York is even wealthier than it was in the 1870s, perhaps even more showy. The social dynamics you read about in Our Kind of People have continued and expanded. That’s what I’m working on now.
Jenny Wheeler: Certainly I consider that Our Kind of People would be a great candidate for one of those TV series Netflix is doing, like Bridgerton. There are so many stories there, and this sounds like it would be the perfect second series.
Carol Wallace: From your mouth to God’s ears.
Jenny Wheeler: Carol, it’s been wonderful having you with us today. We have gone slightly over time but thank you so much for being with us.
Carol Wallace: Jenny, it was my pleasure. Thank you and have a wonderful day.
What to listen to next and next week on JOBR
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Next week on The Joys of Binge Reading,
Lise McClendon’s Bennett Sisters French mystery series features on the show. Her 11th book, Château des Corbeaux, or Castle of Ravens, set in the vineyards of Bordeaux. That’s on The Joys of Binge Reading next week.
That’s it for today. Happy reading and see you next time
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