Launch: Elizabeth Conte’s Chosen Mistress
INTERVIEW BY KATHERINE MEZZACAPPA
Elizabeth Conte is a native of California where she enjoys the year-round gardening weather, growing roses, photographing flowers, walking her dog, Winston, or mixing up a cocktail. She writes poetry, short stories, and novels. Her award-winning debut novel, Finding Jane, was released in Spring 2022. Her second novel, Chosen Mistress, has recently been published. Her other work has been included in anthologies: The Truths That Can’t be Told, The Truth That Can’t be Told 2, Love is in the Air, Let’s Begin Again, Summer Fireflies, and I Have a Dream. Her writing has been featured in The Pangolin Review, Sad Girls, Plato’s Cave, Lost Coast Review, Lake Forest Writers’ Roundtable, and PennWriters.
How would you describe Chosen Mistress and its themes in a couple of sentences?
Chosen Mistress is a narrative set in Victorian society about two women entangled in a love triangle they could never have imagined, which exposes the underside of love, sex, and relationships.
Do you write in other genres than historical fiction? What draws you to this genre?
I write both historical and contemporary stories, aiming to create a new genre, “literary romance,” blending literary writing with romantic storylines. I want to offer readers stories with old-world sensibilities—stories withunique characters, beautiful imagery, meaningful dialogue, deep romance, poetic prose, and layered stories that linger in the heart—that will appeal to the modern reader.
What was the spark behind writing Chosen Mistress?
Chosen Mistress is “provocative” while my debut novel, Finding Jane, was romantic and sweet. But it was during my research for Finding Jane that I came across so many interesting and shocking facts about the so-called conventional Victorian era. And thus, this tale of intrigue and scandal was created.
There is a lot of vivid detail in your book, as when Charlotte looks about Lydia’s home admiring the rococo clock and the wool-work footstool. Have you drawn on visits to stately homes as inspiration?
My background in interior decorating and garden design inspires the vivid details in my book. I have a love of architecture, furniture, antiques, and am a huge admirer of workmanship. I also love gardening. I aim to immerse readers in my stories through detailed descriptions of the environment so they can fall into and linger in my stories.
Which character did you find most challenging to write about? Or who, indeed, felt most alive to you as their author? For this reader, the most intriguing were Andrew Knightly, as his motives initially are not clear, and Tessa Rylands, who upends the traditional assumptions about the entraîneuse.
I love Andrew Knightly, a character full of life and wit. He doesn’t let things drag him down, and his intellect helps him stay ahead of everyone who might break him.
In Charlotte, you subvert the image of the conventional Victorian miss. What research did you do that led you to explore the idea of a Victorian parallel world running alongside the outwardly respectable one? There is a lot of evidence that men of the middle-class and above could take advantage of this, but did this apply to women of their class too?
The idea of a hidden Victorian world emerged from my research into 19th-century women’s lifestyles: bathing habits, undergarments, dressing rituals, and beauty regimens. I cannot pinpoint which article or what exactly I read, but it hit me that maybe the Victorian era was not as “conventional” as presented. That, and the mere nature of men and women, presented itself as opportunity for a story. This idea of a proper, moral, and etiquette-ruled society did not correlate to human nature, or to past historical behavior. If there were strict rules for social interaction, there had to be a counterculture bucking the system. I decided to expose the crack and look inside.
You are writing of a time when there was one rule for men, another for women in relationships. Was it a challenge to get this across to the modern reader?
I believe the challenge is to not perceive behaviors and actions through the lens of our modern notions and sensibilities. This story take place in a different time and place with different perspectives and experiences. Modern people are not smarter, stronger, or better. We all come from the point from which we are born and learn from experiences in our lifetime. Charlotte and Lydia were strong, smart women who navigated power, gaining empowerment for their time, in spite of the misogynistic society into which they were born.
Charlotte defies convention, both in standing up to her circumstances when she is disinherited and in being in love with someone she cannot have. She reminded me of Jane Eyre—and in fact you reference her in the book. What literary inspirations do you draw upon in your writing?
My first novel, Finding Jane, was my homage to Pride and Prejudice. My second one, Chosen Mistress is my homage to Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I adore 19th-century writing, with all its drama, sensibilities, philosophy, and visual sensations, and want to bring those nuances to the 21st-century reader in new stories that will not just be entertainment, but move the heart and mind.
What are you working on now?
Flipping the genre, I am writing a contemporary story, Life of Her, about a woman who is invisible. Not concealed from sight invisible, but the kind of invisible that makes her feel forgotten. She runs away—from everyone and everything that once defined her—to a small town in Scotland where she finds a group of friends who help her discover herself. But it only puts her back to where she was when she ran away: choosing to live the life of everybody else, or hers.
I wrote this story because I felt women over forty in literature were all portrayed as “old”—either confined to a mother or grandmother role. Stories about woman over forty as the main character, who is vivacious, sexual, and relevant, are few and far between. This is a coming of age … of middle age, for every woman who is aging and feels invisible in the world.
What writing tips would you like to share?
Read! Read outside your genre. Read classics. Read history. Read philosophy. They say write what you know, but you should know a lot to do that. Reading expands your mind, grows your vocabulary, opens your views, and allows you to see outside of your own little world.
What is the last great book you read?
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.