Sophie Irwin grew up in Dorset before moving to south London after university. She has spent years immersed in the study of historical fiction, from a dissertation on how Georgette Heyer helped win World War Two, to time spent in dusty stacks and old tomes losing herself in Regency London.
Her love and passion for historical fiction bring a breath of fresh air and a contemporary energy to the genre, and Sophie hopes to transport readers to a time when ballrooms were more like battlegrounds.
Sophie's new book A Lady's Guide to Fortune-Hunting was published by HarperCollins on 15th May and is also available from our catalogue.
Who were your heroes as you were growing up and when did you first start to write?
My heroes were all authors, growing up! Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, of course, once I discovered them both at around thirteen years old. But before that, I was a big fantasy fan – fantasy was what made me truly obsessed with reading as child and I still love them today. I absolutely adored the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan and wrote him a long letter explaining all the ways I thought his books were amazing – and he wrote a lovely reply back, which absolutely made my year at ten years old. These are still the first books I recommend to this age group, because I think they are fantastic.
I wrote a lot as a child (fantasy, mainly!) but by sixth form I had completely stopped – I suddenly thought my scribblings were embarrassingly bad and couldn’t bear carrying on. It wasn’t until I was twenty-six, and had the idea for Lady’s Guide, that I began writing again – with the support of my brilliant friend, Fran, who convinced me it wasn’t embarrassing to try at something I loved, no matter how good or bad I was at it.
How did Georgette Heyer help to win WWII?
Great question! If we were face to face, I’d whip out my dissertation and begin a completely unasked-for live reading… As we aren’t, I’ll try my best to summarise briefly. Perhaps it is a little hyperbolic to say that Heyer won WWII – but only a little! During the war years, the sales of Georgette Heyer and other historical romance novelists saw a massive, almost unprecedented boom. Surveys and anecdotal evidence alike suggested that reading Heyer and her contemporaries was a huge and necessary form of escapism – one of the few indulgences in a time of restriction and fear, that bolstered the spirits and enabled people to carry on. The Times in 1939 called reading for pleasure ‘our safest refuge from the mental torment of war’. This is something that Heyer herself seemed to be aware of, and even to write for, writing to her publisher – with her usual self-deprecation – that ‘I think myself I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense, but it’s unquestionably good escapist literature; & I think I should rather like it if I were sitting in an air-raid shelter’.
There's also the famous story of a letter sent from a Romanian political prisoner, thanking Heyer for her books – the prisoner had read the romances aloud to her fellow prisoners which 'helped us escape – for a few hours at least – from the weary drabness of our prison days and the vile that surrounded us'. I think about this story whenever literary intellectuals are sniffy about Regency romance, because it just shows how much value and importance the genre truly has.
Can you tell us a little about your new book, A Lady's Guide to Fortune-Hunting?
My novel, A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting, tells the story of Kitty Talbot – who, at the beginning of the book, has been left with an overwhelming amount of inherited debt. With four sisters to support, Kitty needs a fortune – or, rather, as the year is 1818 and there are very few ways for women to make their own riches, she needs a husband with a fortune. So, with only twelve weeks to go until the bailiffs are knocking on the door, Kitty heads to London in search of a wealthy husband. She may not be well educated, well connected, or all that well born, but Kitty is determined to use every ounce of ingenuity and cunning she can muster to climb the ranks of high society – and no one, not even the worldly Lord Radcliffe, is going to stand in her way…
How did the character of Kitty come to you? Is she based on any historical or literary figure or a combination?
The idea for the novel and the idea for Kitty came to me at almost the exact same moment. I was walking to work very early one morning, thinking about the Regency romance novel I had just read. In this brilliant book (Black Sheep, by Georgette Heyer, for anyone that’s interested) like so many historical romances written in or set in the 19th century, the heroines are morally pure, and the villains are mercenary scoundrels. I began to wonder what it would be like to read a Regency romance where it was the heroine and not the villain who was the fortune hunter – which was when Kitty pretty much strode into my head, demanding (with a certain forcefulness that would become so central to her character) to be written. Determined, wilful and a little bit manipulative, Kitty is all too aware of the ways in which Regency society traps women, and is driven by financial need, not romance as so many of her fellow Regency heroines – or at least, at first she is…
I had many influences when writing Kitty’s character. Heyer, of course, writes brilliant heroines – headstrong and funny and practical – and I certainly looked to her for inspiration. Then, of course, Austen (the queen herself) peppers fortune-hunters throughout her novels – from Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility the iconic and uncaring Lady Susan. I certainly looked at these characters — their manipulations and machinations — for fortune-hunting inspiration, but I also wanted Kitty to be likeable, for the reader to root for her, and so she was also influenced a little by Marilyn Monroe’s Lorelei in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Frank Abagnale in Catch Me If You Can – characters we love for their fun, their cleverness, their daring.
Why do you think there is so much interest in the regency period? This was happening before Bridgerton came along. We have shelves full of regency rakes all issuing well.
To those of us who love the genre, of course, the Regency romance has never gone out of fashion – it has had hoards of loyal readers ever since Heyer first created and popularised the genre in the 1920s. But I agree that ever since the Spring of 2020 it feels like the Regency Romance is back in style with a vengeance – months before Bridgerton brought another wave of readers to the genre. It seems that in times of international stress – war, rationing, political conflict, pandemics alike – we reach for the regency. Perhaps because that sliver of a decade at the end of the Georgian period offers the most glittering, the most lavish, the wittiest and most distracting setting possible.
It was a time of cultural and material excess and the novels set in this time lean all the way into its frivolity and vibrancy – the antithesis to the fear and weariness of pandemic life or even the new stresses 2022 has brought. You only have to look at the words used to review Regency romances – always 'bubbly' 'sparkling' 'frothy' – to understand that their livening and reinvigorating experience.
Is there anything you can share with us about your latest project?
Yes! It’s also set in the Regency, but this time our heroine is a young woman named Eliza. A decade before the book begins, Eliza married the austere Earl of Somerset, twenty years her senior. The marriage was one of convenience – his wealth and title in exchange for her youth and obedience – the fulfilment of a daughter’s duty, and Eliza’s happiness was never a consideration. Until, suddenly and shockingly, Eliza is widowed at the age of nine and twenty – and just as suddenly wealthy and independent in a way she has never been before. For the first time in her life, it is up to her what happens next…
I had so much fun writing my second book, reading all about the most outrageous widows of the Regency – and I can’t wait to share it with readers.
One book, piece of music or work of art that everyone should experience?
I’m going to shock absolutely nobody and suggest a Georgette Heyer novel – start with Frederica, it’s one of my absolute favourites. Every sentence sparkles! If you need any more Heyer suggestions, do come and find me on social media – I’ll match you to a romance that will knock your socks off.
What is the best piece of advice you were ever given?
It wasn’t given to me, specifically, but something that Ira Glass said about being a beginner really changed my whole attitude to writing. It’s worth listening to the whole speech (type ‘Ira Glass, the Creative Process’ into Youtube’ and you’ll find it) – but in essence Ira Glass explained that it is normal to be disappointed by your own work, in the beginning. Whether it’s writing or drawing or singing or whatever – and whether it is a hobby or something you want to make into a career – it is not going to be as good as your taste, for a long while. This is part of the process that everyone has to work through, and the trick is to just keep trying. This was a piece of advice that really helped me to relax into my first draft!
Can you tell us one thing about yourself that your readers may not know?
That I find it very difficult to come up with good character names on the spot – so a great many of my side characters’ surnames are borrowed from street names or towns and villages I’ve been through. I keep a list of good ones on my phone in case I get stuck!