Family photo with Elise and Louise (fourth and fifth from left); watercolor of Kansas roses by Louise; watercolor of Switzerland by Elise; Elise at her painting easel.
Why did you begin reading historical romance? Was it a craving for sweeping stories of passion set in faraway lands? Or because Jane Austen completed only six novels and you long for more balls at Netherfield? One of the reasons I gravitate toward historicals is a hunger for connection with the past. When I begin a new Eloisa James or Tessa Dare novel, I know I will not only fall in love with the hero, and want to be best friends with the heroine, I’ll also be transported to a colorful and fascinating historical setting.
Connecting with history is on my mind because today I’m looking at the same view my great-great-grandmother Louise and her sister Elise loved to paint: the jagged peaks of the Dents du Midi mountain range in the Swiss Alps. Beside my laptop sits a blue clothbound book filled with letters the two artistic sisters exchanged after Louise emigrated with her husband Henri and their eight children from Switzerland to Kansas in 1889.
For the next twenty-five years the sisters corresponded faithfully. Louise describes farm life in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Washington. She lists the price she gets for selling chicken eggs (10 cents), sends recipes (a delicious-sounding elderflower lemonade), and encloses watercolors of American wildflowers and clippings of her children’s hair. She worries that her girls are growing up too fast: “They marry so young here. It is not rare at fifteen…and a girl of twenty is an old maid.”
Elise, who never married, writes of her work as a drawing teacher at a nearby college in the town of Aigle. As a young woman she studied art at the same Atelier as Vincent van Gogh, exhibited paintings in Paris, Geneva, and Zurich, and proudly became a member of the recently founded society, The Union of Women Painters and Sculptors.
I was thinking of my Swiss and Swiss American ancestresses when I wrote If I Only Had a Duke, my second historical romance novel. The heroine, Thea, is a self-taught art historian obsessed with the seventeenth century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi. Viewing one of Artemisia’s paintings in Florence is a life-changing experience for Thea. The kinship she feels with the painting and the artist sparks a rebellion that leads her to seek independence from her overbearing mother, sets a journey in motion, and opens the door to true love.
I’m inspired by the idea that nurturing a bond with history has the power to change lives. It also reminds us that we all have roots. We are all still growing. Sadly, Louise never saw her sister, or Switzerland, in person again. I’d like to think she might be pleased by the thought of her great-great-granddaughter writing romance novels with a view of her beloved Alps.
Have you visited a place that has personal historical significance for you? Why do you like to read historical romance? Let me know in the comments.
Ms. Bell is giving away two autographed copies of If I Only Had a Duke with chocolates inspired by the apricot trifle featured in the book.
Lenora Bell is a third generation Alaskan and her hometown still has no traffic lights or fast food, but the public library is going strong. An English teacher with an MFA in Creative Writing, Lenora has traveled the globe using music to bring smiles to classrooms. She currently lives in Switzerland with her carpenter husband and two naughty tiger-striped kitties.
All photos reproduced from Swiss Sisters Separated by Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs (used with permission of author)