I was inspired to write my debut historical romance after a visit to the splendid Morris-Jumel Mansion, located in New York City’s Washington Heights. Imagine an estate from Alabama or Georgia, complete with solid white columns and lush gardens, dropped onto the island of Manhattan, and you’ll get a good idea of the place. Startling, to say the least.
But even stranger than the existence of the house was the story of the woman who lived there through the 1800s. Eliza Jumel was born into poverty in Providence, Rhode Island as the daughter of a prostitute, and used her beauty and wit to become the richest woman in New York City by the time of her death in 1865, at the age of 92.
It couldn’t have been easy, to say the least. In the early 1800s, the class system in New York was rigid. The lower class was made up of laborers and servants; the middle class consisted of small merchants and clerks, and the upper class were subdivided into three tiers of its own. Successful merchants were at the bottom, followed by a middle tier of elite clergy, lawyers, doctors and politicians. At the very top of the cake sat members of the prominent families of the day, including familiar names like the Astors, Jays and Gracies.
So there was our girl Eliza, born into the lowest of the low but determined to scale the heights. First off, she had to shed her humble beginnings. She concocted a story that her mother had died on a sea voyage while giving birth to her, and the captain of the ship had placed her in the care of a pious guardian. She met and married a wealthy wine merchant and, after a visit to Paris, returned to New York with a luxurious wardrobe, refined manners and an air of sophistication all designed to break through into high society. But the fashionable folk wanted nothing to do with her, and she was rebuffed and ridiculed.
I couldn’t help but base my heroine on Eliza – although I took enormous liberties with the plot in fashioning my historical romance. Renamed Catherine Delcour, my leading lady also forges ahead full steam when she wants something, and isn’t about to let high society get in her way.
As for Eliza Jumel, she became a shrewd businesswoman, an uncommon feat for a woman in that day and age, and her ghost supposedly still roams the mansion.
Amazing the strange ways inspiration hits. How about you? Which historical figures do you think might make great romance heroes or heroines?
About the author
Julia Tagan lives with her husband and goldendoodle in New York City. A journalist by training, she enjoys weaving actual events and notorious individuals into her historical romances. Her favorite activities include walking her dog in Central Park, scouring farmers’ markets for the perfect tomato, and traveling to foreign cities in search of inspiration. She can be found online at juliatagan.com, on Facebook, Goodreads and Twitter.
A QUESTION OF CLASS by Julia Tagan/May 5/Kensington