Well, not literally. She spends most of her time glued to her desk, writing about grommets and model aeroplanes. No, Alice is avoiding the real world because there’s something—someone—in her past that she’s desperate to forget. So when she’s commissioned to write about life in stately home Eversley Hall, she jumps at the chance to escape into Regency England, even if it does mean swapping her comfy T-shirt for an itchy corset. Perhaps she’ll meet her own Mr Darcy…
But when her past resurfaces in the shape of Leo Allingham, Alice is brought down to earth with a bump. Reckless, unpredictable Leo reminds Alice of the painful price of following her heart. And the new Alice doesn’t live dangerously.
Or does she?
‘Reader, prepared to be charmed … to cry a little … and laugh a lot. Julie Cohen’s pen dances gracefully over the page in what is on the surface a delightful romp, but which packs an emotional punch that most romantic comedies fail to deliver. It takes great skill to marry both light and dark, but Julie manages this seamlessly and with a deftness of touch that will keep you reading till the very last page. Enchanting.’ — Veronica Henry
‘The flirtation with the Regency world is delightful fun, but that’s also the frame for a moving and deeply satisfying love story. A rich feast.’ —Internationally bestselling author Jo Beverley
‘Wonderful…moving and heartbreaking and funny and real.’ —L.A. Weatherly
‘Loved it! …Made me laugh out loud – a feat usually reserved for Georgette [Heyer]‘—Heyer biographer Dr Jennifer Kloester
‘Total bliss from first page to last; full of nostalgia, bittersweet romance and men in tight breeches. The kind of book you can’t stop reading but don’t want to finish. I loved it.’ —India Grey
‘The Summer of Living Dangerously captures all of the witty, elegant and dashing style of the Regency era and wraps it in a delicious contemporary novel.’ —Nicola Cornick
“What do you call this contraption, sir?”
“It’s an electric wheelchair.”
Holding his battledore racquet out of the way, Arthur stooped down to examine the fat rubber tyres of the visitor’s wheelchair. “I wouldn’t fancy these wheels on a curricle. How on earth does it work?”
“Er, well, I’m not quite sure. It has a battery attached.”
“A battery?” Arthur looked alarmed. “Dear lord, sir, I hope you don’t mean to tell me that you have a host of armed men to pull you around in this thing?”
“No, no,” said the visitor, laughing, “it’s a—a sort of square box, with electricity coming out of it.”
“Electricity,” the man explained. “It’s this—oh, I don’t know, it’s this invisible power. Like lightning.”
“You have a lightning-powered conveyance.”
“Yeah, that’s it. More or less.”
Arthur turned to the man’s wife, who was standing beside them. “Madam, you have my unalloyed sympathy. Does he often succumb to these delusions?”
The group of visitors laughed. There were lots of them; it was Bring A Picnic Day at Eversley Hall, and the weather was cooperating by being warm and sunny. Blankets and garden chairs dotted the lawn in all directions; there were several impromptu games of football and cricket going on in the lower fields. The inhabitants of Eversley Hall had a more formal picnic, laid out on a table with silver and porcelain, and set up under a small canvas tent to shield the ladies’ complexions from the sun. The visitors formed themselves naturally around us, as if we were on stage and they were the audience.
I’d been looking forward to this weekend. In fact, since last night and my disastrous encounter with Leo, I’d been doing my best to think about nothing but Eversley Hall. I didn’t want to remember what Leo and I had done. I certainly didn’t want to analyse it. Nor did I want to think about my sister Pippi and how angry I was at her, how anxious I was for her unborn baby. Or any of the memories that all of this stirred up.
Thinking about it, talking about it, would be like reaching inside and grabbing my pain with both hands and dragging it, throbbing and cowering, into the light of day. I didn’t know how big it was. Inside me, it felt small and safe, something I could control. But if I dragged it into the open, how much would it grow? Would I ever be able to contain it again?
I much preferred it hidden away.
The nineteenth century was so much more sensible. I glanced down at my black dress. If someone died in 1814, you changed your clothes and your behaviour. You wore black. Everyone knew you were in mourning. You had a schedule to follow, with a prescribed amount of time given to grieve. And then, when that period was over, you changed your clothes and your hair. You put aside your sadness with your black dresses. You started going to balls and parties again. You began to think about how to move on with your life.
You mourned moderately and with propriety, and meanwhile you sat on the lawn under a tent, drank lemonade and had a civilised conversation about current events and wheelchairs powered by lightning.
“It was the Duke of Wellington’s ball last night in London,” said Lady Fitzwilliam, fanning herself with an exquisite silk and sandalwood fan. She was wearing a shell-pink day dress with seed pearls and ruffles of lace. In the three weeks I’d been working here, I hadn’t seen her wearing the same outfit twice. Unlike Selina and I, who wore the same thing every day. I plucked a twig of lavender from a crystal bud vase and rolled it in my fingers, smelling the scent.
“There were nearly two thousand people at Burlington House,” added Isabella Grantham. She wasn’t as well-outfitted as Lady Fitzwilliam, but she did have three day dresses and several different bonnets. Today she was in an apple-green dress with scalloped edging, with a spray of roses on her straw bonnet.
“Do you wish you could have been there?” I asked her.
“Of course I wouldn’t wish myself anywhere but in the present company,” she said to me. “But it must have been a grand spectacle.”
“Imagine the dresses,” sighed Lady Fitzwilliam.
James put down his battledore racquet and bent to stroke Nelson’s silky ears. “Were you there, sir?” he asked a visitor sitting nearby, on a fold-out lawn chair.
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“Are you familiar with the event?”
“It was a great masked ball in honour of the Duke of Wellington, celebrating the Allies’ final victory over Napoleon, and only one of a series of events in London this summer to celebrate one hundred years of Hanoverian rule and the end of the Peninsular Wars.”
“Next week there will be a Service of General Thanksgiving for the Allied Victory in Saint Paul’s Cathedral,” said Isabella.
“And there is to be an enormous public celebration in St James’s Park on the first of August, with fireworks and a re-enactment of the Battle of the Nile.”
I rolled the lavender in my fingers. History, history, history, although to be fair, it was pretty interesting history. I’d read at least one novel which began during that celebration, with a young lady rescued by a dashing young man from being trampled in St James’s Park.
We’d been coached and instructed to talk about all these things, however. They were in our dossiers. Isabella Grantham had reminded us this morning. I had them memorised, too. The next thing would be about the Temple of Concord in Green Park.
“And the illumination of the Temple of Concord in Green Park,” added Isabella, ostensibly speaking to a woman sprawled on a blanket. “Have you seen it, madam? It is a sight to behold.”
“Makes you proud to be English,” said Arthur, reaching over his supposed sister to snag a bunch of grapes. “We’ve routed the Frenchies, Boney is on Elba, and we’re showing those Yankees who their masters are.” He flung himself down on the lawn, heedless of stains to his light breeches. Nelson immediately jumped on top of him and started licking his face. A cordon of three small children joined the action, pig-piling on top of Arthur as he laughed.
“No! No!” he sputtered. “Not the British Army and the British Navy! Help! Take me back to Elba, Jacqueline, please!”
I twisted the lavender. Clara would have been about the age of that girl, with the black plaits, the one holding on to Arthur’s boot.
I stood up and strode over to Selina, where she stood under a parasol. The sunlight caught strands of her light brown hair and turned it to gold. I tucked a relatively intact blossom of lavender into the ribbon of her bonnet.
“Have you read any good books lately?” I asked her.
“Yes! I’m reading that Friday’s Child that you gave me, and I love it. I love how George is always fighting duels.”
“Shh!” I lowered my voice. “It’s a great book, but Georgette Heyer wrote it in the 40s.”
“Worse, the 1940s. Don’t let your brother catch you discussing it.”
“Whoops.” She put her hand to her mouth and twirled her parasol in consternation. I squeezed her hand.
Why couldn’t my sister Pippi be like this?
Arthur had stood up and was running around the lawn, chased by Nelson and the children, to the amusement of almost everyone except for Isabella. He obviously loved kids; he was a kid himself.
“Ladies, may I interrupt your conversation to challenge Miss Woodstock to a game of battledore and shuttlecock?” James Fitzwilliam was beside us, holding out the racquet that Arthur had abandoned, and smiling. My heart, which had been in my stomach, leapt into my throat.
There. That was what I should be thinking about. Playing a lawn game with a perfect man in the sunshine.
“I don’t know how to play,” I told him.
“I’m certain you’ll pick it up quickly. You have an admirable facility for adaptation.”
I reached for the racquet, and someone spoke in a very loud voice.
“But the war wasn’t over in 1814.” It boomed out over the picnickers, and we turned to look at the man who’d spoken. He was standing a few metres away, wearing a short-sleeved buttoned-up shirt and jeans and round glasses. He looked like a secondary school history teacher. “Napoleon escaped in early 1815.”
“Did he?” murmured a woman near me, to her daughter. “When was Waterloo?”
“Thousands of people were killed,” the man said. “All the celebrating in London in the summer of 1814 was horribly premature. The Prince Regent, the King of Prussia, Tsar Alexander I, all the other Allied leaders—they were partying for nothing. People were still going to die. Over two million, in total. And the Temple of Concord caught on fire.”
A hush descended. Over the picnics, over the sun-drenched grass, over the flowers and the beautiful dresses.
“Sir,” said James, calmly, “you are remarkably knowledgeable about events that have not yet occurred. I congratulate you on your prescience.”
“The British didn’t win the War of 1812 against America, either. We lost over eight thousand people.”
At this, there was a murmur. “We’re trying to have a picnic, here,” said a man next to the history teacher.
“I’m just pointing out what really happened,” the teacher protested, but the visitors around him were beginning to give him dirty looks. A couple folded up their picnic blanket and moved toward the other side of the lawn.
“How rude,” said Lady Fitzwilliam.
“Well,” I said, “I never liked the Temple of Concord anyway. Horrible, ugly thing.” I took the racquet from James and smiled at him. “Shall we play?”
I had a wonderful time researching this novel. Of course there’s the whole underwear issue, above, but that’s only the start of it. I met with historial re-enactors, and historical interpreters, and historical dancers, and historical costume experts, and specialists in restoring historical buildings. I tried on a nineteenth-century corset, talked in a field with a man impersonating Napoleon, and spent an evening learning how to do the Duke of Kent’s Waltz.
In appearance, Eversley Hall is based very closely on National Trust property Basildon Park in Berkshire, which served recently as Netherfield Hall in the 2005 Joe Wright film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The National Trust were hugely helpful to me in researching the novel.
The theme song to this book, in my head, is ‘Assume the Perpendicular’ by The Divine Comedy. I listened to it roughly 1,348 times whilst writing this novel, along with the rest of the album, Bang Goes the Knighthood. Neil Hannon, if you ever read this: I owe you a drink.
I met some extraordinary people. Here are a few of them: