614. Dollar Princesses and Marriages of Convenience with Harper St. George


Sarah Wendell: Hello and welcome to episode number 614 of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books. I’m Sarah Wendell, and my guest today is Harper St. George. We are going to talk about Harper’s new book The Stranger I Wed, which has a truly gorgeous cover. Like, it’s sumptuous. And we’re going to talk about dollar princesses of the Gilded Age, which is a really fun piece of history. We talk about transactional marriages and the power dynamics of marriage of convenience, plus Harper has a few recommendations from her favorites.

I will have links to everything we talk about in this episode in the show notes at smartbitchestrashybooks.com/podcast under episode 614.

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All right, are you ready to start this podcast? Let’s talk about history, dollar princesses, and transactional marriages with Harper St. George.


Harper St. George: I’m Harper St. George, and I write historical romance. Right now I’m writing Gilded Age historical romance, but I’ve written Vikings and historical Westerns and even co-wrote a contemporary sports romance, so I’m sort of all over the place.

Sarah: I mean, when in doubt, switch genres, right?

Harper: Exactly! That’s been my theory all along!

Sarah: Are you bored? Try another place.

Harper: Exactly, yes!

Sarah: I’m looking forward to the time-traveling Vikings in the Gilding A-, Gilded Age? ‘Cause one of the things, as you know, I’ve been doing with the podcast is looking at old issues of Romantic Times, and so for May, we are going back to May, I think it’s May 1994? And when there, there are so many time travel romances in that issue. I was like, Oh, I forgot this was a whole thing.

Harper: It was big. I think Outlander kicked off a lot, ‘cause wasn’t that around 1990? And isn’t that when that came out?

Sarah: Yep.

Harper: Somewhere around in there?

Sarah: Somewhere in there!

Harper: And then there were a lot of time travel romance. I can remember, because I was in high school when I really got into romance –

Sarah: Yeah, me too.

Harper: – and that was in the mid ‘90s?

Sarah: Yep.

Harper: And I can remember being, Okay, I don’t want to read another time travel romance. [Laughs]

Sarah: Sorry! That’s all there is! [Laughs]

Harper: And…anyway. [Laughs]

Sarah: Thank you, first of all, for The Stranger I Wed. I had Bad Decisions Book Club last night reading it. It was a big problem; I’m a little drowsy, so I’m (a) going to yawn and (b) wow, that was fun! What a fun book! Beyond the truly gorgeous cover – like, did you see the cover and have to put your head between your knees?

Harper: Yeah, I, I have been so thankful for all of my covers with Berkley. They’ve all been amazing, and I did not know what to expect with this being a new series, the direction they would go, beyond I was like, Please put a pretty dress on the cover.

Sarah: Honestly.

Harper: It was amazing.

Sarah: And the, the, the way that the cover incorporates embroidery –

Harper: Mm-hmm.

Sarah: – is so beautiful –

Harper: Mm-hmm.

Sarah: – and also very period appropriate, considering that one of the –

Harper: Yeah!

Sarah: – one of the ways you would demonstrate your wealth and your assets was through embellishment of your clothing.

Harper: Right, yeah. I loved it so much, and I was so excited to see that, and the gold.

Sarah: Oh! Lot of gold. So what will readers find inside this book?

Harper: Okay, well, it is a marriage of convenience. So this is a spinoff series from my last series, so you’re going to have the Gilded Age heiresses again, the same theme, but just a different set in that this is a group of sisters, three sisters, and they’re illegitimate, and their father is Charles Hathaway, but when I say Hathaway you can kind of substitute Astor, ‘cause that’s sort of what they’re based on. So this old New York family, and he had a mistress who he was planning to marry, but his parents stepped in and said no, so now he has this family, and he has his real family, ‘cause he’s married now, and he sort of wants to get them away so they don’t ruin the marriage prospects of his actual daughter; you know, his legitimate daughter. So they have to go to England to marry and inherit their dowry, which is a condition of, that’s releasing the dowry. And Leo is Cora’s husband-to-be; he’s an earl in need of money. He’s a little different of a hero for me, because while I love writing rakes and I love reading rakes, I was looking for a change, and his character just sort of came to me in bits and pieces, and he’s very much the sort of person that needs to have the emotional connection before he can develop sexual attraction, so that’s, also contributes to the slow burn a little bit, because they really have to get to know each other, they have to start supporting each other before that part of their relationship develops.

Sarah: So he has some traits of demisexuality, even though obviously they wouldn’t call it at the time: that there has to be –

Harper: Right.

Sarah: – an emotional foundation before sexual attraction.

Harper: Exactly.

Sarah: I, I noticed that, but didn’t want to label it such, because obviously that language didn’t exist at that time, but I noticed that attribute to his character. I also love that he and Cora are both aware of the world that they’re in, and they’re politically minded in different ways. I’m, for the record, I don’t, I don’t like to spoil books that I’m talking about, so I’m going to be real vague at some point, so – [laughs] – I don’t want to spoil anything to somebody who’s listening and hasn’t read the book yet, but they’re both very politically minded. That was a really interesting, interesting choice, because again, usually you have heroes who are like, I would like to drink and gamble and have sex. These are my jobs. [Laughs]

Harper: It’s true. Yeah, well, you know, I love to research what’s going on in the world of my heroes and heroines, so – and even now, with the world we live in, it’s really difficult for me to imagine people who are not, even if they’re not politically involved, at least aware and opinionated somewhat of what’s going on around us –

Sarah: Mm-hmm.

Harper: – and around them. One thing that really drew me to this era is how it mirrors where we’re at a little bit?

Sarah: A lot?

Harper: And the political –

Sarah: Yes?

Harper: – aspects, because you have the women’s rights movement, you have the workers’ rights, because unions weren’t really a thing, but they were starting. You had the Jim Crow laws starting, so you had, you know, people of color looking for full rights, and you have all of that happening, or starting at least, in the 1870s, which is when this book takes place. And, you know, we see that even now, how we’re still sort of fighting, not exactly the same. We have made progress, I don’t want to say we haven’t, but you still see those echoes now.

Sarah: And you also see this enormous amount of wealth consolidated within a very small amount of people. That’s true now, and that was true then –

Harper: Exactly.

Sarah: – and they are both –

Harper: Exactly!

Sarah: – and they’re both very resistant to union organization, labor movements, women’s rights. Like, the, all of the structures that feed, you know, capitalism and white supremacy, they’re very, they’re very in favor of those structures. They don’t want to see them come down, because that, that eradicates their power.

Harper: Right! And they’re doing everything they can to pass laws that are going to hold those systems in place.

Sarah: Yeah. Wow! Nothing changes. How bleak. [Laughs]

Harper: I know! It just, you know, it keeps coming back around; the more things change, the more they stay the same in a lot of ways, because, you know, one of my pet peeves about history is when people now will say, Well, back in my day, we didn’t do X, Y, or Z. Or the world these days. And it’s like, you know, people are the same! You know, we have the same selfishness; we have the same desires.

Sarah: Yep.

Harper: You know, there are good things too, but it just keeps coming back around, and in many ways we have to learn these lessons again over and over.

Sarah: Yeah. Now, can I ask about Cora? I’m curious –

Harper: Mm-hmm.

Sarah: – if she was inspired by any specific dollar princesses.

Harper: Cora, no; pretty much, she was just sort of an amalgamation of all of these women that I had heard of. I can say, not necessarily her, but the situation of all of her and her sisters being illegitimate –

Sarah: Mm-hmm.

Harper: – and being married off to wealthy or titled men was inspired because I wondered, well, I just got to wondering, you know, could that actually happen?

Sarah: Mm-hmm!

Harper: Would they have to be legitimate for it to work? And so I did come across, Almina Wombwell?

Sarah: Yep.

Harper: She was actually British, and her father was a wealthy industrialist, one of the wealthiest families in England, and her mom was married to, I think it was a Navy captain, so he was like her, her father, but not her biological father. And then she was married to the Earl – I can’t remember – Carnavarn or something like that?

Sarah: Yep!

Harper: Carnavarn. Anyway…

Sarah: I just, just pulled it up, because I, I love this particular example of a, a – I mean, she wasn’t technically a dollar princess ‘cause she was British –

Harper: No, mm-mm…

Sarah: – but the idea that she was illegitimate and was like, Nope. Got me a crown, got me a big old robe; things are good. Yeah, it was Carnarvon.

Harper: And she became Countess and, of Highclere Castle, and that’s the Downton Abbey house –

Sarah: I know!

Harper: – so it’s such a good little piece of history. So, you know, and it really did happen!

Sarah: And it re-, and like you just said, it does come back around.

Harper: Exactly.

Sarah: Yeah. Now, I know that you write, obviously, in the Gilded Age, which is very awesome, and I would really like to, like, give you the opportunity to show off some of your favorite pieces of research? A lot of people know about, you know, Victorian society. The, the Gilded Age is now receiving a lot more attention in popular culture, which (a) excellent timing for your books; fantastic. It’s really great when pop culture and a book publication line up. Like, I did a couple of interviews with Maggie Tokuda-Hall, and she released The Mermaid, The Witch, and the Sea, and then Our Flag Means Death became popular, and she’s like, Okay, so if you like queer pirates, I have books. Don’t, I’ll get them right now, and, like, the second book hit at that perfect moment, and so I love it watching when popular culture and the books that I love, like, they, they meet up, and everyone’s like, Oh, wait! There’s all of this? And I’m like, Yes, there’s all of this! Come to romance; we have neat shit. So –

Harper: Yeah…

Sarah: – [laughs] – we have such great stuff! And it’s so great when the popular culture and the thing that you write are starting to intersect and become popular at the same time.

Harper: Because so often that does not happen. [Laughs]

Sarah: No! It’s so rare, and so when it does it’s like yes! This is great! Ride the wave. What are, what are some of the things about the Gilded Age that you love writing about, and what are some differences between the Gilded Age and the Victorians?

Harper: Okay, the one thing I love about the Gilded Age is just that over-the-top opulence of it? I mean, it’s really crass and bold.

Sarah: Oh my gosh, ‘cause they didn’t have social media. They could have the most ridiculous parties, and only people would start to gossip about it. Well, it was four days ago; what are you going to do?

Harper: I know! They could spend a million dollars on a party, and people would talk about that for, you know, a year, and it would be in all the newspapers across the land, because what else were they going to talk about?

Sarah: And that happens again, if you look at Truman Capote and his Black and White Ball. There’s a whole show about this one party!

Harper: I know! [Laughs] So it’s, I mean, I would never live like that, because it’s just –

Sarah: [Laughs]

Harper: – I like to spend too much time reading than planning parties –

Sarah: Yeah.

Harper: – but it’s so fun to visit that mentality, what that would have been like, and you have elephants come to your party, and you have –

Sarah: As you do.

Harper: – you know, tables set up with swans floating down the table top, and it’s just amazing what they would come up with to outdo each other. So that’s one of my favorite things. Like, I am not a gossiper; I’m like one of these people, I don’t spill the tea, but I very much love to listen to it! [Laughs]

Sarah: Yes!

Harper: So it’s a little bit like, Okay, so what is Alva Vanderbilt up this week?

Sarah: Yep!

Harper: So it’s very interesting, just the gossip and all the craziness that happens.

Sarah: Oh, there’s so much, too.

Harper: Yeah.

Sarah: Because when you’re that worried about –

Harper: It’s never-ending.

Sarah: – about appearances in front of your peers, you’re going to constantly talk about them as well –

Harper: Exactly.

Sarah: – and of course you’re going to write it down and send it in letters, and hopefully some of them survive. Ooh-ooh.

Harper: And, you know, you have to be talked about in some ways to survive in this sort of society, because if you’re the quiet little mouse or the wallflower –

Sarah: No.

Harper: – why would anyone care about you? You know? [Laughs]

Sarah: And that’s, that’s a difficult tension, I think, for Cora and her sisters, because they have to make enough of a splash that they can get the attention of a titled person, and that would release the terms of their money. I don’t think that’s a spoiler, ‘cause it happens in like the first –

Harper: Mm-mm.

Sarah: – five pages.

Harper: Mm-hmm.

Sarah: Also, her, her father is a complete tool. Like, I kept highlighting things he was saying; I’m like, Oh, this guy. I know this – aw. Like, he’s like, Well –

Harper: Well, you know him, right? [Laughs]

Sarah: I know him. I was like, Oh, you’re – ah, oh, you’re just the worst! He’s like, Well, you know, I wanted to wait until the dust settled before I told you and your sisters about this life-changing amount of money that my mom left you.

Harper: Right.

Sarah: Bro, if she had not shown up in your house and said, What’s going on? ‘Cause I got a letter; he wasn’t going to say a word.

Harper: He totally wasn’t, so…

Sarah: What a putz. Anyway, that guy. Ugh.

Harper: That sort of brings up the differences, I think, in the British Victorian society –

Sarah: Oh really!

Harper: – and the Gilded Age society in the US, at least in New York. I, I, when I say Gilded Age, I really think it applied pretty much all over the Western world outside of England, but my focus is obviously on the New York. So it’s interesting in that these women would have had, and they did have an easier time going to Britain, or anywhere in Europe, really, to catch a titled husband than they would have being upwardly mobile in the United States.

Sarah: Yeah.

Harper: And it’s because – probably most of you know if you’re into Gilded Age, but, you know, at that point in British history, the aristocracy were sort of losing their money. Many of them were sinking into genteel poverty because of the industrial revolution. Their tenant farmers were moving to the cities; their farms were staying bare. You know, you could, at that point, import grain cheaper than you could buy it in the English countryside, so that allowed a lot of room for these women who had this money behind them to come in and snag a titled husband. But they could not necessarily move upward in US society because US society was all about keeping the new money people out, almost no matter who you were. Now, we do see examples of some of the men and the sons marrying upward, like Caroline Astor, her daughter Carrie Astor married a new money, a, a guy from a new money family. The Marrying Wilsons was the name of that family, and there’s a lot of fun stories there. But essentially she went on a hunger strike until her mom relented and let her marry him. And you general-, you, do you see other instances of this, and it’s because the men would inherit the money and the political power, so they were able to offer something to these families that the women weren’t necessarily able to offer this. The daughters of these families had only the money that her family gave them. They didn’t really have influence –

Sarah: No.

Harper: – so actually it was easier for them to move to England.

Sarah: Yeah.

Harper: And in England you were not seeing the men being upwardly mobile that much –

Sarah: Yeah.

Harper: – because, you know –

Sarah: They were all locked into position.

Harper: – they were entitled, were entitled.

Sarah: Yeah.

Harper: Exactly. So in some ways it was easier for them to crisscross that way.

Sarah: Yeah.

Harper: The men to come over here; the women to go over there.

Sarah: And also you have lack of a, of a firm language barrier. There’s definitely terms and differences in words, but for the most part you can understand each other. It’s not like the language barrier between, like, say, France and England, where if you don’t speak French you’re kind of in trouble. There’s not as much of a language barrier, but there’s enough of a distance barrier that it’s going to take some effort to find out if someone really is who they say they are, and if the, if the check clears, does it actually matter if they are who they say they are?

Harper: Yeah. I, I don’t think it does, really, because once you’re a countess, once you’re a duchess, they kind of have to invite you to the parties.

Sarah: Yeah!

Harper: You’re not going to be – I mean, they’re going to talk about you regardless, I think, and I think a lot of these women who did make that move, and they would be sent to these country estates that didn’t have good plumbing –

Sarah: Oh –

Harper: – they certainly didn’t have electricity –

Sarah: – I want to ask you about that, ‘cause that’s one of my favorite things about the dollar princesses – [laughs] – but yeah.

Harper: – and they’re just sitting in these, you know, dank old castles, and it’s like, well, now what? I had a better life back in New York!

Sarah: Yep. When you mentioned the upward mobility, one of my favorite stories when I was growing up, I grew up in Pittsburgh, which is where the Frick and the Mellon families were, and I grew up down the street from the home of the Frick family, which is Clayton, and until I was really young, Henry Clay Frick’s daughter Helen lived there, and, like, it used to be a dare for us to go trick or treating at Clayton House, ‘cause it was big and Gothic –

Harper: Yeah.

Sarah: – and scary, and you’d go up this big driveway. She actually would sometimes answer the door. She was elderly. But I once did a tour of the Frick estate once the – once she died, she gave Clayton to the city and they refurbished it; now it’s a museum connected to the museum, and there’s also the carriage house, and so the story is that the carriage house is really opulent. Like, it looks like one of those big New York mansions, and the reason is that Henry Clay Frick and his wife Adelaide went to New York, and of course he’s got money, and he’s friend with Andrew, Andrew Carnegie and the Mellons, so they let him into things, but the society wives were really unkind to Adelaide, and so she went back home to Pittsburgh and designed the stable to look like the home of the woman who had snubbed her, because that was going to be where all her horses took a dump inside that woman’s house.

Harper: Wow. That’s pretty amazing.

Sarah: Isn’t that glorious petty? I love that kind of petty. Like, that’s –

Harper: Yeah.

Sarah: – that’s planned petty. But you can also, I’m like –

Harper: That’s amazing.

Sarah: But I can also understand, like, you have this money; you have more money than you could possibly spend in your lifetime, but what you want in terms of social acceptance is forbidden to you. And then you have to, like, go through all these weird hoops to get it, and even then, if you are a countess, there’s going to be people who are rude to you. You just have to learn how to –

Harper: Exactly.

Sarah: – be rude back in effective ways.

Harper: Yeah.

Sarah: Now, speaking of the dollar prince- – isn’t that terrible?

Harper: Yes, it is. That’s amazing.

Sarah: Terrible petty. I love it so much. Now, that was from a tour guide; I can’t a hundred percent verify that, but that was said to me –

Harper: I’m going to have to research that.

Sarah: I, if, listen, if it shows up in a book, I’m going to be extreme- –

Harper: It’s going in a book!

Sarah: I’m extremely excited that it would show up in a book. This was told me by a tour guide at the Frick estate, which is Clayton.

I, I want to ask you about the, the dollar princesses, ‘cause I find this whole concept so fascinating.

Harper: You know, in all there were about three hundred, three hundred and fifty of these marriages, so.

Sarah: Which, which is a big number?

Harper: I mean, it’s not surprising –

Sarah: But also not a big number that they made such a splash.

Harper: Yeah. Well, you know, some people put it all the way up to World War I.

Sarah: Ohhh!

Harper: I would say it kind of ended in the early, like, 1900s, because then we get into the Progressive Era, I think, more than the Gilded Age.

Sarah: Mm-hmm.

Harper: But if you count all the way, I mean, that’s like forty, a good forty years.

Sarah: Yeah. Yeah.

Harper: And I know that newspapers at the time, even in the late 1870s, early 1880s, were sort of lamenting the fact that all of these women were going to Europe to find husbands when we had good men in America who needed wives. [Laughs]

Sarah: Yeah, they’re, they’re missing a key element of the plot there.


Harper: I know!

Sarah: Like, there’s a, there’s one video that I was watching to prep for this interview, and the narrator said something along the lines of, Well, when you’re, when you’ve run out of things to buy to show how powerful you are, and you’ve already got a yacht, and you’ve already got jewelry, and you already throw parties, and you’ve got like five houses, what do you need? You need a title! But we don’t have those over here, so we’re just going to go over there and get some!

Harper: Exactly! I mean, it was cash for class marriages. That’s what they were calling them in the newspaper. That’s totally what it was. Personally, I feel like at that point you should maybe start giving your money away?

Sarah: I mean.

Harper: You know. You could buy a title too.

Sarah: Makes me think of MacKenzie, Bezos, Jeff Bezos’s ex-wife, who keeps giving away like buckets and buckets and buckets of money.

Harper: Yeah.

Sarah: I’m like, go ahead.

Harper: Yeah.

Sarah: This is great. Love it!

Harper: I know!

Sarah: I also love the fact that all of these American heiresses who were raised in, like, newer homes with the latest modern conveniences, like you said, would go out to this country pile and be like, You have holes in your roof. There is no plumbing. Why do you not have heat? This is, what, what is this? So then you have these people –

Harper: You have to…now.

Sarah: Right? And, and you have these people who society probably doesn’t want to welcome then, but not only do they bring money, and not only are they married in so you can’t get rid of them, they’re bringing you indoor plumbing!

Harper: Mm-hmm.

Sarah: Let them, let them in. [Laughs]

Harper: Let them in. Yeah, I mean, I read somewhere that in today’s dollars they infused one billion dollars into the British economy.

Sarah: Holy cow!

Harper: Which, you know, as you can imagine, would sorely have been needed.

Sarah: Yeah!

Harper: And yet they’re being, I’m sure, talked about at all these parties, and they’re not up to, they’re not blue-blooded enough. No, I, I do not envy them! So –

Sarah: No, I don’t either. I, I really don’t either.

Harper: But they would have had to overcome.

Sarah: I, I have to say, looking at it objectively as a romance fan, I really love marriage of convenience stories, and transactional marriages, I think, are a very particular flavor of marriage of convenience, and one of the things I like about Leo and Cora is that they’re very open about the transaction that they are making. Like, it’s in like chapter three. All right, so I have money; here is a letter with all of the money that I am going to bring to this marriage.

Harper: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Sarah: And I love when he reads it and he’s like, he can’t school his features fast enough? He’s like, Holy shit!

Harper: [Laughs]

Sarah: Oh my God, that’s a lot of zeroes! Oh boy!

Harper: Yep! That’s enough money!

Sarah: That’s, that’s, that’s ama- – ohhh! All I have to do is marry you. Wow! Okay! And you’re passably attractive and intelligent. Whoo! He’s, he’s really floored. But they’re very open about what the terms of their marriage are. And the thing I love about marriage of convenience is that it separates marriage from intimacy. Because often in romance, obviously, we’re, the, the intimacy leads to marriage.

Harper: Mm-hmm.

Sarah: Sometimes you were too intimate, got caught, and you have to get married, but the intimacy –

Harper: Mm-hmm.

Sarah: – leads to marriage. That’s, like, the end goal, whereas with a marriage of convenience, rather than intimacy leading to marriage, with marriage of convenience –

Harper: Right.

Sarah: – the marriage leads to the intimacy. Which is what happens with Cora!

Harper: And you have that forced proximity sort of built right in, right?

Sarah: Yes! There’s literally only one bed!

Harper: Whether you like this person or not.


Sarah: There’s only one bed because you’re already married. So why do you like marriage of convenience stories? What are your favorite things about them?

Harper: Well, I have to say I’ve always loved the enemies-to-lovers stories and where they’re adversarial to start with.

Sarah: Mm-hmm.

Harper: I do love marriage of convenience because of the forced proximity, but it’s never been one of my top favorites, and I never have set out to write a marriage of convenience until this book –

Sarah: Yeah.

Harper: – because I like to challenge myself and do different things. I mean, sort of like with Leo’s character in general and with, and with the marriage of convenience, I love how you have these two strangers who have no idea if they’re well suited or not, and they have to come together and make it work, and I love seeing them sort of butt heads or brush up against each other in, in tension and not actually – and just having to work through it, because I feel like with marriage of convenience, sometimes in romance it’s fun, but I don’t really see how they’re going to be together going forward –

Sarah: Yeah.

Harper: – once the story ends. With marriage of convenience, I think we get to see them work out everything, and we see how they work well together –

Sarah: Yeah.

Harper: – and that’s what I love about it.

Sarah: It is so interesting to me in this context of the story and also in a, in a, in the larger sense of the time period then and now, that you have women who are constantly having to negotiate a tiny morsel of power from men, and here’s Cora with this big letter of amazing money power, but she still has to negotiate, she has to negotiate whether or not she’s going to have children, and she has to negotiate whether or not she’s going to be able to leave the marriage and be happy on her own if that’s what she wants.

Harper: Not only does she negot-, have to negotiate if she can have children, but she doesn’t know if she’s actually going to get that concession –

Sarah: No!

Harper: – you know?

Sarah: Yeah! So she’s, she’s got this tiny little chance at power, and she still has to negotiate with men all the time.

Harper: Exactly.

Sarah: No wonder she writes feminist papers.

Harper: [Laughs] Under a pseudonym.

Sarah: Yeah.

Harper: I mean, could you imagine? I would, I would be writing too.

Sarah: I would be.

Harper: There’s a quote that I put at the beginning of the book, which I was so shocked that I found, and it’s from Susan B. Anthony, and it says:

>> Men have everything, most women nothing but what men give them. When women want anything, be it bread or a kind word, they must pay the price that men exact for it. It is nearly always a pound of flesh.

So I thought that was so powerful and so, it just en-, encapsulated everything that Cora’s having to go through. She has to negotiate with her father to even get her inheritance. Even then, she’s not really totally sure he’s going to follow through!

Sarah: Yeah!

Harper: Then she has to negotiate with the earl that she’s planning to marry –

Sarah: Yep.

Harper: And even goes so far, Okay, if we have this many children, I don’t want any more, or if we had this and this is bad for my body –

Sarah: Yeah!

Harper: – we’re not going to have any more after that.

Sarah: Yeah. And if you are, if you are cruel to me, there’s really not a lot I can do about it. Even in the very beginning, one of the things I like about Cora is how astute she is? Like, when she’s talking to her father, she takes the letter from her, from his mother, her grandmother, out of the envelope, but holds onto the envelope because she’s thinking, He could just take this letter and chuck it in the fire, and no one –

Harper: Mm-hmm.

Sarah: – would be able to prove what I’m saying. But if I have the envelope –

Harper: Mm-hmm.

Sarah: – I can prove she did write me something. Like, it’s not enough proof, but I – she doesn’t, she doesn’t have to trust any of these people, but she has to negotiate with them? That is so hard!

Harper: Exactly. And, you know, she’s used to that, because she’s the oldest of her sisters –

Sarah: Yeah.

Harper: – and her mom, Fanny, I love her, and this was the first book I wrote I realized, Oh gosh, I’m the same age as the mom.

Sarah: [Laughs] Oops!

Harper: So she has a soft spot in my heart, but at the same time, she’s irresponsible! I mean –

Sarah: Oh, very.

Harper: – she grew up without parents, she was an actress as soon as she could run away from the orphanage, and she’s just a free spirit and has no idea how to raise children, but she’s done her best. But, you know, when, when Cora does negotiate with Leo for their marriage, you know, Fanny doesn’t show up, because she doesn’t even realize she’s supposed to!

Sarah: No! And she wouldn’t have anything to add to the conversation anyway, except to be –

Harper: No.

Sarah: – just embarrassing.

Harper: Yeah.

Sarah: And that’s really interesting, because the boundaries of class are so much more firm for the women than they are for the men. The, the smallest things give you away as not belonging, because the rules are so opaque and they’re so old, and they don’t even make sense half the time, and so you have some people who are trying to be dollar princesses who are trying to make connections. Like, I know some of the more famous ones were, like, best friends with the Prince of Wales! Probably –

Harper: Mm-hmm.

Sarah: – a good position to be in, to be among his friend group. But then you have people like Fanny who don’t even know that they should care about how –

Harper: Right.

Sarah: – they’re coming across and how they’re presenting, which means that Cora now has to navigate even more negotiation. Like, how do I further my own interests without alienating my mother and my sisters, even though my mother is going to probably harm my efforts to make the best of the situation that I’m in.

Harper: Right.

Sarah: Poor, poor Fanny. Bless her heart.

Harper: Cora has a lot riding on her shoulders, for sure.

Sarah: Yeah, she really does. So what are some of the things that drew you to this transactional marriage story? What led you into this story?

Harper: Well, I would say the Almina Wombwell –

Sarah: Yeah.

Harper: – story, how she was married and illegitimate, and there was this big to-do and I was reading about her, about where to hold the wedding breakfast, so –

Sarah: Ohhh!

Harper: – because she was illegitimate, so you can’t hold it here, you can’t hold it there. [Laughs] I just thought it was an interesting take, something I hadn’t really delved into yet in these Gilded Age marriages, so that drew me, and I was also at this point researched a lot more with what was going on in Britain at the time –

Sarah: Mm-hmm.

Harper: – the politics of that, and that’s how – so Leo is fighting for clean water for the working class towns. It’s more than clean water, but, like, the, the refuse, take, the trash taken out –

Sarah: Yeah.

Harper: – and things like that, because you would have piles of trash as tall as buildings in these towns because they built up the towns so fast so the workers would have, who work in the factory, would have somewhere to live, and that’s why you have tenement buildings, and you have the terraced houses that we see even now, but there was no thought to sanitation or anything. So that was an afterthought that came through, and it wasn’t until the 1850s when Dr. Snow sort of physically proved, Hey, water can get us sick!

Sarah: Yeah!

Harper: Because he, there was an outbreak of, I think cholera or something like that –

Sarah: Yep.

Harper: – that was linked to this one well –

Sarah: Yep.

Harper: – and he physically interviewed all the people, traced it to, like, twenty miles out, and proved it was all from this one well. These people had gotten money, um, water; sometimes they would pay to have water shipped to them because they’d grown up around this one well. And –

Sarah: And it had a particular taste, because it had cholera in it! [Laughs]

Harper: Exactly! [Laughs]

Sarah: I think it was next to a –

Harper: Because this one –

Sarah: – was it next to a, an animal rendering place or a factory or a cemetery? Something super gross that you shouldn’t be drinking.

Harper: Well, in this case it was linked to this woman who was, like, washing diapers in the open water there at the well.

Sarah: Great! Sure, awesome. Yeah!

Harper: So yeah.

Sarah: Oh boy.

Harper: Anyway, so he’s fighting for clean water –

Sarah: Mm-hmm.

Harper: – for these people to have access to clean water, and what’s so funny is that even though in the 18- – so the book is 1878, Dr. Snow proved this in the 1850s, you still had people saying, Oh no, this isn’t true.

Sarah: Yeah.

Harper: It’s caused by miasma; you know, vapors in the air. And that continued on until, even though the bill he was working on was based on a real one and it did pass like it does in the book – sorry, SPOILER ALERT – later on, it’s not until the 1890s that people really embrace that this is germs or something that happen, that can spread in the water, and it’s not because it wasn’t proven, because Pasteur also proved it scientifically. It’s just that it was cheaper to not believe that, ‘cause you had the land owners, the landlords, the politicians, they would all have to sort of bear the price of building this infrastructure. And so, again, this is something that we see happening today –

Sarah: Mm-hmm.

Harper: – over and over. We proved something, but it’s not convenient or it’s not cheap enough to believe.

Sarah: Yo.

Harper: So, you know…

Sarah: Happens right now. Right now. We’ve got people with mumps, because they’re like, No, vaccines don’t work. No, we, we, we proved this! Let’s not do polio! Polio is bad!

Harper: Yeah. Yeah.

Sarah: On the one hand it’s like, wow. Like you said, humans are so similar, and we’re so very same, very, very similar across time periods –

Harper: Mm-hmm.

Sarah: – and yet we are so collectively boneheaded.

Harper: It’s true. I mean, we can be, and it all comes down to, you know, greed or this feeling of scarcity.

Sarah: Yep. And that someone’s going to take what you have and that you won’t be as, as special and have the status that you, that you think you should –

Harper: Right.

Sarah: – ought to have. It’s, it’s greed and entitlement. And of course you can, you can convince people, wow, these towns should have basic sanitary services and clean water, because they’re people and they should have those things, but it is probably a much more effective argument then and now to say, If you do these things, then worker, worker productivity will increase and, and you will make more money, because you will have healthy people who aren’t bathing in their own refuse. That, that’s going to be a more effective argument. Even now it’s a more effective argument. Wow! We don’t learn anything. Except us romance readers. [Laughs]

Harper: If the employees are healthy and, you know, make a livable wage –

Sarah: Yeah! It’s kind of shocking!

Harper: – they might actually be more productive.

Sarah: And also generally happier. Like, this, this is all, oh, it’s so basic.

Harper: Mm-hmm.

Sarah: So do you have any transactional romances that you would want to recommend, or marriage of convenience stories that you would want to recommend?

Harper: Okay, so I knew this question was coming, and I actually had to think hard about it because I don’t think we have as many as we used to.

Sarah: No! We don’t! It’s true.

Harper: I, there, they used to be all over the place, but I think, you know, in general we have less historical romance now, sadly, with mass market sort of going away.

Sarah: Yeah.

Harper: But in general, I just think it’s, we need more marriage of convenience romances. So the one I will always recommend, because I love Lisa Kleypas, is Devil in Winter, of course.

Sarah: Oh yes.

Harper: And then Mimi Matthews. I love her books and the history she puts in her books and the simmering tension, and even though I’m pretty sure all of her books are closed-door – I know the ones that I’ve read are –

Sarah: Yeah.

Harper: – she still has that spice factor. Like, you just see the longing between these people.

Sarah: It’s true; such –

Harper: The Belle of Belgrave Square.

Sarah: – such sexy handholding!

Harper: I know!

Sarah: Incredible gestures with gloves!

Harper: Mm!

Sarah: Ah! Yes, she’s very good at it.

Harper: I know. I love her so much.

The Caribbean Heiress in Paris by Adriana Herrera –

Sarah: Oh, that is –

Harper: – one of my favorites.

Sarah: – a good example, yeah.

Harper: I forgot that it was actually a marriage of convenience until I was going back to my bookshelves, and I’m like, Oh yes, it was, because they just had such good – it was also kind of enemies-to-lovers in the beginning, because they meet, and then later they decide to get married, so it’s kind of got the best of those, I think.

The Duchess Deal, of course, by Tessa Dare.

Sarah: Yep. Yep, yep.

Harper: And one that I remember, and it’s contemporary: The Bride Test by Helen Hoang.

Sarah: That is!

Harper: That’s sort of –

Sarah: Yes! That is absolutely true!

Harper: So those are my top recommendations.

Sarah: Oh, those are good recommendations. What are you working on right now? Are you allowed to talk about it? If you’re not allowed to talk about it, it’s okay.

Harper: Yeah! Right now I am working on book two in the series. I just got edits back, so that’s going through edits right now. It’s Eliza’s book, so the younger sister. And it’s interesting because also the hero is a little bit not a typical hero, which I’m finding with this series I’m just trying to do stuff different. I always have to have a challenge with my books –

Sarah: Yeah.

Harper: – like I’m learning something, I’m doing something different, and so he’s a little bit of a different hero from the two, just in a different way than Leo is.

Sarah: One of the things that I like about this story, and I’m presuming this is going to continue, since you’re writing about sisters, is how Cora and her sisters are honest about who they are and their, each of their flaws and their mother’s flaws and the, the flaws with their, with their biological father. They’re aware of all of these people’s flaws, but they’re still going to treat each other as family. And there’s a, an emphasis on, like, a very honest family in this, in this series. Is that something you set out to do deliberately?

Harper: Yeah! Well, it just felt very real to me, because, I mean, that’s really what family is –

Sarah: Yeah.

Harper: – even if you’re close to your sister or your cousin or whatever, you’re still going to have these things that bother you about them –

Sarah: Oh yeah.

Harper: – or these expectations that aren’t met sometimes. So it just felt very real when I was trying to be more authentic and show, you know, this is also family, and sometimes it’s, you’re not going to talk to each other for a couple months because somebody said something, but, you know, you can – and this is something I try with all of my books: one of the message I want is whatever your Happily Ever After is, whether it’s you being single, with a partner, multiple partners, whatever it is for you, like, you can get there. You can evolve to that space, and it comes from you who, whatever you’re working on, you have to do that for yourself rather than depend on somebody else.

Sarah: Yeah.

Harper: So that’s sort of where that was from.

Sarah: I also particularly love the older sister, the oldest sister energy that Cora has.

Harper: Mm-hmm.

Sarah: Like, she even sees Leopold, and her sister’s like, Oh, he is handsome! And she’s like, Well, do you want him? You can have him! I’ll, I’ll step back! It’s fine! I can find some other guy. There’s that guy with the spit in the corner of his mouth all the time. I could date him; it’s fine. You want him? That’s fine!

Harper: …have to take one of him.

Sarah: Yeah! She, she has such eldest sister energy, especially eldest sister of a not-effective-parenting mom.

Harper: Exactly. Because she’s had to be the parent –

Sarah: Yeah.

Harper: – in many situations, so.

Sarah: And the negotiator, yeah.

Harper: She wants everybody else to be happy.

Sarah: Yeah, you, you want him? It’s fine. I, I, it’s fine, I don’t need him. He’s, he’s, he’s got twinkly eyes, but no, you can have him; it’s fine. I was like, Oh, Cora –

Harper: [Laughs]

Sarah: – as a fellow oldest sister I, I get it. I get it. [Laughs]

Now, I know you gave a bunch of recommendations, but I do always ask what people are reading; if there’s anything that you’re particularly enjoying that you would like to share, I would love to hear it.

Harper: Oh gosh. Every time people ask me this I’m like –

Sarah: Oh yeah, me too! Literally –

Harper: – I don’t know what I’m reading.

Sarah: Literally, my job is to recommend books, and somebody’ll ask me, and I’m like, What’s a, what’s a book? Is that a, is that a thing I should know about? I don’t know what a book is.

Harper: [Laughs] So right now I’m reading 10 Things That Never Happened by Alexis Hall, because I love Alexis Hall’s book. It’s just that very British voice?

Sarah: Ohhh, yes. Very particular.

Harper: So that’s what I’m reading right now. I also just finished The Lady He Lost

Sarah: Ohhh!

Harper: – by Faye Delacour; it’s historical romance. That’s interesting to me. I read an early copy of this, but it was, they were friends, and then they became enemies, and then they became lovers, so it’s definitely a good friends-to-enemies-to-lovers, which I don’t think we have enough of in historical romance. It feels like friends-to-lovers or enemies-to-lovers, but it’s rare you can get both.

Sarah: Yeah. And, and if you have friends-to-enemies-to-lovers, you have an enemy that knows how to press all your buttons, probably –

Harper: Exactly.

Sarah: – because they installed some of them, because you’ve known each other for so long. They can just get you –

Harper: Yeah.

Sarah: – the way no one else can. A fall, a fall, a friendship falling out is brutal.

Harper: It just makes it all the sweeter when they finally do get together.

Sarah: Yeah, and then, and it’s, it’s even more fiery when they, you know, when they go to Bone Town, basically.

Harper: And there’s a pretty good grovel in this one too –

Sarah: Ooh, good grovel!

Harper: – from the initial falling out…

Sarah: Gorgeous cover, too.

So where can people find you if you wish to be found? You don’t have to be found if you don’t want to.

Harper: So I, Instagram is where I love to hang out, and it’s @harperstgeorge, but I’m also on Facebook and Threads, and a little bit Twitter, but I’m mainly updates only there. And my website, of course: harperstgeorge.com.

Sarah: Thank you so much for doing this interview!

Harper: Thank you for having me! It was, like I said, long-time listener, first-time caller.



Sarah: And that brings us to the end of this week’s episode. Thank you to Harper for joining me, and thank you to this wonderful YouTube video that I found that went over so many different dollar princesses. The video is from History Tea Time with Lindsay Holiday, and I will link to it in the show notes.

And of course, never fear, I will have links to all of the books that we mentioned as well, should you too wish to take a dive into marriage of convenience and transactional marriage stories, which, as I mentioned, are among my favorites.

As always, I end with a terrible joke, and this week is no exception. I love this joke:

Did you know all garden gnomes have red hats?

It’s true! All garden gnomes have red hats!

It’s a little gnome fact.

[Laughter] A little gnome fact! I’m just going to call things little gnome facts all the time. That is from dadsaysjokes, and I am glad that dad said that joke, ‘cause that is very funny. Gnome facts.

On behalf of everyone here, including Wilbur, who is snoring, and I’m really grateful that the mic is not picking it up, we wish you the very best of reading. Have a wonderful weekend, and we will see you back here next week.

Smart Podcast, Trashy Books is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. You can find more outstanding podcasts to subscribe to at frolic.media/podcasts.

Little gnome fact. [Laughs]

[end of music]

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