A Fashionable Way to Deal With the Heat in the Regency Era: Sleeveless Gowns

There are times you go to research one bit of information and then you get sidetracked by something else. This blog post is a snapshot of an afternoon when I should have been researching the location of my next book but instead, became obsessed with early 19th century dresses.

While browsing Pinterest, I came across this beautiful summer weight gown that’s part of the historical clothing collection at the Museo del Traje in Madrid. I was struck by the very modern look to it and realized that it had to do with the sleeves…or the absence of them. I couldn’t recall ever seeing a woman with bare arms in any of the portraits or fashion plates I’ve looked at over the years. Was this dress worn with something over or under it in order to cover a woman’s arms? Was it proper to bare your entire arm? Down the research rabbit hole I went, abandoning my original research question, to pursue a new one. I decided to dig a bit deeper and search for more examples of these dresses. I came up with a few interesting conclusions.

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Even though I would wear this gown today without anything under it, all the gowns I could recall that were sleeveless had been shown to be worn with a long or short sleeved chemise under it. The gown in the portrait below is a perfect example. It was painted in 1813 of The Hon. Mrs. Thomas Hope by renowned English portrait artist, Henry Bone (1755-1834) who is known for his work on enamel. Notice how the small sleeves peek out from the dress. I had also seen this look on numerous fashion plates of the day.

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As I continued to search for examples of sleeveless gowns, I found this gorgeous black number. The embroidery is exquisite and I love the detail of the cut on the back! Obviously from the sheerness of the bust and the practice of the day, a chemise and stays underneath would have been essential. But did the chemise have sleeves? I think it would have looked far better if it didn’t. But I still had yet to find evidence that it was acceptable to wear a gown like that.

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When I searched the Museo del Traje, I found another option a woman had while wearing a sleeveless gown. They show a sleeveless dress paired with a matching spencer.

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I also found this sheer cotton embroidered white empire bodice from 1805 that was part of the Tasha Tudor Historic Costume Collection. It would be perfect to pair it with a sleeveless gown in hot weather.

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My search for sleeveless gowns also uncovered this fashion plate of a blue dress from 1798 that appeared in the Costume Parisian. This sleeveless gown was worn with a sheer shawl. Another way to combat the heat while possibly remaining fashionably proper.

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And, then there was this pink shawl-like Spencer from 1797.

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I was beginning to believe it was not proper for early 19th century ladies to bare their arms, until I saw this portrait from The Princely Collection in Vaduz-Vienna and knew I had my answer. This portrait of two young women said to be of the Baroness Picnon and Mme. de Fourcroy by Riesener Henri-Francois (1734-1806) depicts a seated woman in a white sleeveless gown, holding a green shawl while exposing her bare arm.

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And, then I discovered this adorable fashion print that shows a sleeveless chemise under a sleeveless dress that was printed in the Costume Parisian!

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So I would say in very warm weather, it would have been acceptable for women to wear sleeveless dresses. And, at a time when there was no air conditioning, I’m sure it gave a bit of relief.

*******

One Week to Wed - Laurie BensonMy book ONE WEEK TO WED, takes place over the course of the summer of 1819 and I could very easily see my heroine wearing gowns like these. And to be honest, I would love to wear them, as well.

ONE WEEK TO WED is the story of widowed Lady Charlotte Gregory who believes you can’t fall in love twice in a lifetime. But that belief is tested when she meets the dangerous Lord Andrew Pearce and he brings her respectable, quiet world back to life. One night, they find themselves alone and give in to their desires only to find their secret passion leads to shock, scandal…and a sudden marriage of convenience.

It is the first book in The Sommersby Brides trilogy and you can pick it up at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google Play, iBooks, and kobo.

The Secret Behind the 18th Century Hot Chocolate Pot

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“The Early Breakfast” by Jean-Etienne Liotard, 1753. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

If you’ve read my books, you know that most of my heroines prefer to drink chocolate the first thing in the morning instead of tea. Drinking chocolate was introduced to Europe by the Spanish and by the late seventeenth century it was a popular morning beverage. It was served warm, like it is today, however it was not as sweet as the hot chocolate we’re accustomed to. The painting above shows a servant girl presenting a cup of chocolate and a glass of water to a young French noblewoman as part of her breakfast.

One of my favorite parts of writing historical fiction is picturing how things looked two hundred years ago. Going antique hunting and visiting museums plays a big part in helping me step back in time. Since there were special pots designed for fixing hot chocolate, I thought I’d give you a glimpse at what they looked like.

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Chocolate pot made by Joseph-Theodore Van Cauwenbergh. 1774. Photo courtesy of Walters Art Museum and Wikimedia Commons.

A chocolate pot is taller than a tea pot and looks similar to a coffee pot. You can tell the difference between a coffee pot and a chocolate pot by the finial. A chocolate pot’s finial is either removable or it slides to the side. Chocolate needed to be stirred often in order to prevent it from settling to the bottom of the pot. This removable finial would allow you to stir the chocolate with a long swizzle stick without having to open the lid which would cause the heat to escape.

Some chocolate pots had straight handles, like the one in the photo above. Chocolate was an expensive commodity in the 17th and 18th centuries and associated with expensive things, so the pots were either made of silver or porcelain. You can usually tell something about the location of where the pot was made by what it was made out of. In Austria and Germany, the courts favored porcelain pots. In France the pots were either made of porcelain or silver. The American colonists began their love affair with drinking chocolate in the mid 17th century when England acquired Jamaica in 1655, an area where chocolate was grown. Chocolate pots weren’t produced in the colonies though, and pots made overseas were sold in the colonies at a very high price.

The chocolate pot above was made out of silver and amaranth wood by Joseph-Theodore Van Cauwenbergh in 1774 in Paris, France. The records at the Walters Art Museum show that this pot was owned by John Alfonse Walter who lived in Haiti. John and his wife Susan brought this pot with them when they moved from Haiti to Baltimore, Maryland sometime after 1793.

In 1828, Coenraad Johannes Van Houton invented the cocoa press, which removed the fat from cacao beans and turned the beans into cocoa powder, the basis for most hot chocolate produced today. Chocolate prices fell, and soon chocolate became a luxury most people could afford. With the development of cocoa powder the design of the chocolate pot changed. Chocolate powder eliminated the need for constant stirring of the pot, therefore pots made after 1828 have their finials permanently affixed to the lid of the pot.

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This mid-18th century enamel and glazed porcelain chocolate pot was made by the Meissen Porcelain Factory in Germany. Photo courtesy of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

Drinking chocolate was so popular that not only was it depicted in paintings, but also in decorative items like this lovely Meissen porcelain couple created by Johann Joachim Kandler in 1775 that are sharing a cup of chocolate.

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

In An Unexpected Countess my heroine, Sarah, enjoys a cup of chocolate with her breakfast.

Nominated for Harlequin's 2017 Hero of the Year!-3

Sarah Forrester is an American diplomat’s daughter who must locate the fabled Sancy Diamond or her family will be ruined by a mysterious blackmailer. But the Earl of Hartwick has also been tasked by the Prince Regent with finding the diamond. Little does he know that the feisty woman he meets on a roof top is his competition. As they each follow the clues hidden in a bracelet, Sarah and Hart realize they will have to work as a team. Being together may be as dangerous to their hearts as the hunt is to their lives…and finding the jewel is only the beginning.

Available in print and ebook. Click on the links below to pick up a copy of this Regency romance today.

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A Regency Era Christmas Parlor Game You Might NOT Want to Try at Home

Discovering the Christmas traditions of the early 19th century is one of the fun things about writing a Regency Christmas story. While I was looking into ways families would entertain themselves on Christmas Eve, I discovered one game that took me by surprise. It’s called Snapdragon and was a winter parlor game played around Christmas.

Snapdragon was played between the 16th and 19th centuries, first in England and eventually in the United States, as well. In Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language published in 1755, Snapdragon is described as “a play in which they catch raisins out of burning brandy and, extinguishing them by closing the mouth, eat them”. This was not a game for the faint of heart and it took a brave person to participate.

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Christmas celebration with people playing Snapdragon in the lower right corner. Engraving by T. Hollis after R.W. Buss, curtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

To play Snapdragon, you fill a large shallow bowl with brandy and place it in the middle of a table. Then you toss in raisins and light the brandy on fire. The effect is similar to burning brandy over a Christmas pudding. The brandy does not burn at a high enough temperature to turn the raisins to ash, and they almost appear as small wicks. The raisins were called snapdragons, giving the game its name.

The object of Snapdragon is to snatch a raisin out of the flaming bowl and pop it into your mouth. Back then, all the candles in the room would be snuffed out, so you could easily see the blue flame burning in the bowl. If raisins weren’t available, you could use almonds, currants, figs, grapes, or plums. It was believed that the brave soul who took the most snapdragons out of the burning brandy would meet their true love within a year. What really surprised me was that in almost all of the illustrations I found of the game, small children were taking part. Just looking at the illustration below, with the little boy reaching into the bowl, makes me nervous that his sleeve is going to catch on fire.

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Snapdragon by Charles Keene, 1858. This illustration appeared in the Illustrated London News.

The game of Snapdragon is mentioned in Old Christmas by Washington Irving, and Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens. In my book An Unexpected Countess, both my hero and heroine are very daring people and have a highly competitive relationship. I could just picture Hart and Sarah challenging each other to a game of Snapdragon.

Nominated for Harlequin's 2017 Hero of the Year!-3

 

Sarah Forrester is an American diplomat’s daughter who must locate the fabled Sancy Diamond or her family will be ruined by a mysterious blackmailer. But the Earl of Hartwick has also been tasked by the Prince Regent with finding the diamond. Little does he know that the feisty woman he meets on a roof top is his competition. As they each follow the clues hidden in a bracelet, Sarah and Hart realize they will have to work as a team. Being together may be as dangerous to their hearts as the hunt is to their lives…and finding the jewel is only the beginning.

Available in print and ebook. Click on the links below to pick up a copy of this Regency romance today.

Amazon
Barnes & Noble
iBooks
Kobo

 

 

A Look at St. James’s Park in London: Then and Now

Strolling through St. James’s Park has become one of my favorite things to do whenever I visit London. And each time I’m there, I can’t help but stop on the footbridge to admire the view. But did you know that this lovely bit of heaven in a great metropolis didn’t always look the way it does today?

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Photo of St. James’s Park by Laurie Benson.

St. James’s Park is the oldest royal park in London and was originally a marshy meadow. In 1532, King Henry VIII acquired the land as a deer park and built St. James’s Palace adjacent to the land. James I was the first one to have the park landscaped, but it was King Charles II who hired French garden designer Andre Mollet to create a more formal look to the park similar to the French gardens he saw when he was in exile. The redesign included a straight long canal, lawns, and walkways. Charles opened the park to the public and was frequently seen there amongst his subjects. In 1664, the Russian ambassador gifted Charles with a colony of pelicans which he had placed in the park and whose decedents occupy the park today.

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Andre Mollet’s plan for St. James’s Park. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Beginning in the late 17th century, cows grazed on the fields of the park and up until 1925, you could visit the park and purchase a fresh cup of milk directly from the cows via the milkmaids.

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The Mall in St. James’s Park by Thomas Gainsborough, 1783. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When George IV, then the Prince Regent, wanted to celebrate the end of the war with France in 1814 with Allied sovereigns, he invited them to London. Various events were scheduled in and around the royal parks. A Chinese-style bridge was constructed to span the canal in St. James’s Park, and on top of it was a striking seven storey pagoda. Although the bridge remained until 1825, the pagoda caught fire during the celebratory fireworks and was sadly destroyed.

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Chinese-style bridge with pagoda in St. James’s Park, 1814. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In 1825, St. James’s Park went through a major change when George IV commissioned renowned architect John Nash to redesign the park in a more romantic style. The shape of the long canal was altered into the shape the lake takes today and many flowering plants and shrubs were installed.

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Photo of St. James’s Park by Laurie Benson.

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Photo of St. James’s Park by Laurie Benson.

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Photo of St. James’s Park by Laurie Benson.

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Photo of St. James’s Park by Laurie Benson.

If you venture into St. James’s Park today, you step back in time to a piece of early nineteenth century London and can thank John Nash and George IV for the beauty that surrounds you. I am so fond of this park, I included it as a key location in An Unexpected Countess.

An Unexpected CountessAn Unexpected Countess is out now!

Sarah Forrester is an American diplomat’s daughter who must locate the fabled Sancy Diamond or her family will be ruined by a mysterious blackmailer. But the Earl of Hartwick has also been tasked by the Prince Regent with finding the diamond. Little does he know that the feisty woman he meets on a roof top is his competition. As they each follow the clues hidden in a bracelet, Sarah and Hart realize they will have to work as a team. Being together may be as dangerous to their hearts as the hunt is to their lives…and finding the jewel is only the beginning.

Available in print and ebook. Click on the links below to get your copy:

Amazon
Barnes & Noble
iBooks
Kobo

 

 

Where Did the First American Ambassador Live in London

When I began writing An Unexpected Countess, one of my favorite bits of research included where I wanted my characters to live. The Secret Lives of the Ton trilogy is set in London and in a previous article I talked about Albany, the fashionable residence of Regency era bachelors that is home to my hero the rakish Lord Hartwick. Well my heroine, Miss Sarah Forrester, is the daughter of the American Minister to the Court of St James. To determine where Sarah and her family should live, I needed to investigate where the first American Ministers lived in London.

Before I share what I learned, I’d like to explain the title of “American Minister to the Court of St. James”. Currently, the highest-ranking individual at the American Embassy in London is the Ambassador to the Court of St. James. His title does not reference Great Britain because Great Britain is a Constitutional Monarchy and he is appointed to the Royal Court. The Royal Court is where the Sovereign resides. When America gained its independence, George III’s residence was the Palace of St. James in London. George IV, and subsequent sovereigns have taken to residing in a number of palaces throughout the year. In order to avoid confusion, American Ambassador’s continued to reference their post as the Court of St. James.

The first American man to serve as the highest ranking envoy to England was John Adams. Mr. Adams was appointed American Minister by Congress on February 24, 1785 and was presented to King George III on the first of June. While in London, he found a modest property in the best part of Town. I was thrilled to discover the building is still standing—and it’s in Grosvenor Square in Mayfair, across the park from the current American Embassy.  

The American Embassy in London, which is also referred to as a chancery.

Grosvenor Square, London

For his residence, Adams chose the corner building that is 9 Grosvenor Square. There is a plaque attached to the building that informs you that in this house lived John Adams, First American Minister May 1785 to March 1788, afterwards served as President of the United States. From here, his daughter Abigail was married to Colonel William Stephens Smith, First Secretary of the Legation and an Officer of the Revolutionary Army and Washington’s Staff.

No. 9 Grosvenor Square, the London residence of John Adams.

Mr. Adams’s time in London was not an easy one. He had signed the Declaration of Independence which had been considered a treasonous act at the time, promoted America’s independence, and negotiated the treaty that achieved that. The London press had scorned his appointment and the public was not impressed. When Abigail joined him, she also was exposed to slights. The wife of an MP once asked her, “But surely you prefer this country to America?”

For all the bashing by the public, he appears to have had a cordial relationship with people in authority. Although, he had little diplomatic results to show for his time. In fact, when he left his position as American Minister in 1788, the American Government saw no need to fill it until Thomas Pinckney was appointed by President George Washington on January 12, 1792.

By the time Mr. Adams left, the press had softened on him a bit. On March 30, 1788, the Westminster Evening Post reported on his leaving and stated that he “settled all his concerns with great honor; and whatever his political tenets may have been, he was much respected and esteemed in this country.”

While I chose not to use No. 9 Grosvenor Square as Sarah’s residence, it did give me an indication of the size of the house and the location in Town that she should live in . And I did find a charming residence not far from there to serve as my inspiration for her home.

An Unexpected Countess is out now!

Sarah Forrester is an American diplomat’s daughter who must locate the fabled Sancy Diamond or her family will be ruined by a mysterious blackmailer. But the Earl of Hartwick has also been tasked by the Prince Regent with finding the diamond. Little does he know that the feisty woman he meets on a roof top is his competition. As they each follow the clues hidden in a bracelet, Sarah and Hart realize they will have to work as a team. Being together may be as dangerous to their hearts as the hunt is to their lives…and finding the jewel is only the beginning.

Available in print and ebook. Click on the links below to get your copy:

Amazon
Barnes & Noble
iBooks
Kobo

 

Sources used for this article:

A Founding Father in London, John Adams’ Trouble, History is Now Magazine, July 7, 2015.

The American Embassy

Westminster Evening Post, March 30, 1788.

An Unexpected Countess is out now and here’s a chance to win a signed copy!

My third regency romance book, An Unexpected Countess, is out now and I’m excited to share the news!  Since you’ve been along on my journey while I did my research for this book, I’m happy to give subscribers to this blog a chance to win two signed paperback copies! To enter, simply send me an email here and let me know you want me to enter your name in my Cozy Drawing Room Giveaway. Two winners will be chosen at random on Sunday, June 11 2017 and notified by email. You have to be a subscriber to this blog to enter, so if you haven’t subscribed yet, now is the perfect time.

Delightfully unexpected plot twists, with lively dialogue and witty repartee, this adventure and treasure hunt romance is a charmer. Benson pits an independent American heroine with a

This is what An Unexpected Countess is about:

Miss Sarah Forrester, an American diplomat’s daughter, must locate the fabled Sancy diamond or her family will be ruined by a mysterious blackmailer. But the Earl of Hartwick has also been tasked by the Prince Regent to find the diamond. Little does he know the feisty young lady he met on a rooftop is his competition. As they each follow the clues hidden in a bracelet, Sarah and Hart realize they will have to work as a team. Being together may be as dangerous to their hearts as the hunt is to their lives…and finding the jewel is only the beginning.

To read an excerpt, click here.

An Unexpected Countess is available now in paperback and ebook from these fine retailers:

Amazon

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iBooks

Kobo

 

St. James’s Square: A Fashionable Regency Era Address

Researching locations to use in my novels in one of my favorite things to do when I’m preparing to write a book. An Unexpected Countess, my upcoming book, is a historical romance that pits my hero and heroine against each other in a race to find a piece of the missing French Crown Jewels. Before I wrote the book, I traveled to London to search out interesting locations to use in that story and became enchanted with another of its picturesque squares.

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St. James’s Square was the first of London’s west end squares and was conceived and created by Henry Jermyn, Earl of St. Albans when he was granted a freehold by the Crown in 1665. The Earl wanted to build thirteen or fourteen houses, “fit for ye dwellings of Noblemen and other persons of quality”. By the time of the construction, his plan was enlarged to include twenty-two houses to be built on the north, east, and west sides of the square with an large unpaved area in the center. The south side wasn’t included in the Earl’s design since there were properties already there that fronted Pall Mall.

By 1726, the south side of the square was an eyesore. It included a 30-foot long coach builder’s shed, and piles of garbage and cinders littered the area. Needless to say, the genteel residence of the square weren’t happy and petitioned the House of Commons to address the situation. An Act of Parliament was passed that year which appointed Trustees from the properties fronting the north, east and west ends of the Square to clean, adorn, and beautify it. That Trust still exists today.

A year after the Trust was formed, the Square was paved and Charles Brideman was commissioned to design an aesthetically pleasing central open area. He created an octagonal space that included a round water basin in the center that spanned 150 feet in diameter and was 4 feet deep. He enclosed the space with outer railings and made walkways extending straight from the corners of the railings to the basin.

In 1799 the octagonal was changed to a circle, and in 1807 an equestrian statue of William III was set in the center of the water basin. The basin was demolished in 1854, but the statue continues to dominate the center of the park today.

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By 1817, the Trustees wanted to revamp the Square and called in John Nash to redesign it. Nash kept the above-mentioned basin but surrounded it with curving walks, added shrubbery around the outside perimeter, designed a summer house beside the south entrance, and added additional serpentine paths through rich landscaped gardens. He enclosed the Square with handsome cast iron railings set on a Portland stone base. Nash’s plan was implemented that year and completed in 1818.

 

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Today, seventeen of the houses that overlook St. James’s Square are “listed” properties of special importance. The Square has had some notable residents. Here are a few and where they lived:

#4 was built in 1728. This was the home of the Astor family for thirty years. It is now home to The In and Out, Naval and Military Club and is the only remaining building that has a mews at the rear.

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#5 was built in 1749 and the second story was added in 1854. This was the London residence of the Byng family (The Earls of Stafford) for 260 years.

#9 & 10 were both built in 1736 and today they’re combined to form Chatham House, which is the office of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. No. 9 was originally occupied by the Hoare banking family until 1836. And, No. 10 was the home to both William Pitt, the 1st Earl of Chatham and Prime Minister of England (1708-1778), and Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1889).

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#15 was built in 1766 and designed by architect James Stuart. This was the London residence of the Earl of Lichfield for fifty years.

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#16 is an important building for those of you who love the Regency era. On the evening of June 21st, 1815 a soiree was being held in this home hosted by Mrs. Edmund Boehm that included the Prince Regent, later George IV. The festivities were interrupted when the Honorable Major Henry Percy, 14th Light Dragoons, an aide de camp to the Duke of Wellington, knocked on the door. He traveled from Brussels with a dispatch from Wellington that informed the Prince Regent of the victory at Waterloo and laid two French Imperial Eagles that were captured on the battlefield at the feet of the Prince. Imagine being able to boast that news of this important victory was announced first in your home.

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#20 was built in 1774 and designed by architect Robert Adam. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother lived here from from 1906 to 1920.

#32 was built in 1818 and for much of the 19th century this was the residence of the Bishops of London.

To find out how I used St. James’s Square in An Unexpected Countess, order your copy today.

An Unexpected Countess

Sarah Forrester, an American diplomat’s daughter, must locate the fabled Sancy diamond or her family will be ruined by a mysterious blackmailer. But the Earl of Hartwick has also been tasked by the Prince Regent to find the diamond. Little does he know the feisty young lady he met on a rooftop is his competition. As they each follow the clues hidden in a bracelet, Sarah and Hart realize they will have to work as a team. Being together may be as dangerous to their hearts as the hunt is to their lives…and finding the jewel is only the beginning.

 

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