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Jo Manning: On Writing
 Regency-era Non Fiction

By Cheryl Bolen

With the 2005 publication of her biography My Lady Scandalous: The Amazing Life and Outrageous Time of Grace Dalrymple Elliott, Royal Courtesan, Jo Manning has made a stupendous leap from penning traditional Regencies to authoring a hardback biography.

Manning has spent her life preparing for writing My Lady Scandalous. In 2000, Regency Press published her novel The Reluctant Guardian and in 2004 5-Star published its sequel, Seducing Mr. Heywood, a BookList top ten romances of the year.

It was more than her love of the era, however, that qualified Manning to write of a courtesan who gave birth to a child likely fathered by the Prince Regent. Manning is a research expert. After obtaining a master’s degree in library science, she worked in five university libraries, has done archival work, and headed up the reference department for Reader’s Digest General Books Division, training researchers in the early days of electronic data bases and handling research requests from Reader’s Digest companies worldwide.

From initial concept to complete book took Manning three and half years. Her agent, Jenny Bent, sold the book on a 47-page proposal which Manning said was, "One of the hardest things I had ever written, primarily because there were still so many gaps to fill."

With her advance (which she said was in the $20,000 to $30,000 range) she was able to embark on the monumental job of filling in those gaps. "Pinning down who she [Grace] was and what actually happened was a rigorous exercise indeed," Manning said. The little that had been written about Grace contained masses of errors--errors Manning took great pains to correct.

From her advance, Manning paid for French translators, genealogists, English researchers, and two trips to England and France. In addition, Manning spent half her advance for picture rights. There are 116 black and white illustrations in My Lady Scandalous, many of which she had to pay to use. She also hired a London photographer to take photos of specific places, and her French researcher and two French translators also took photos. She’s grateful to several private collectors who shared photos at no cost. "I was not a trained picture researcher," Manning said, which made the picture searches "a major research project." Google Images, picture libraries such as the Mary Evans Picture Library and the Bridgeman Art Library, as well as the National Portrait Gallery in London were of great help.

Manning felt it was important to do on-site research, and she spent several months researching in England and France. "It was extremely important to be there, physically," Manning said. "I had to go to the places Grace had been and, though much is available digitally now, a lot is not. Also, physically handling the documents is valuable. You are seeing what these people saw, turning the pages of the journals they read."

There were times when it was impossible for Manning to return to England from her Florida home. For these situations, she hired researchers. She got her Scots genealogist through the Society of Genealogists in London, but the genealogist was unable to find a birth record for Grace Dalrymple. From a list of from the British Museum, Manning hired a woman who researched the Bentley Archives at the British Library. That researcher failed to turn up the original of Grace’s journal of the French Revolution, which was published posthumously. Manning still hopes to find that document.

Writing Grace’s story was replete with serendipitous incidents, Manning said. One of the serendipitous finds was her French researcher, a retired law professor who is a friend of one of Manning’s New York friends. "It turned out that she lived in the very area where Grace had spent the last years of her life and knew people at the local historical society from whom she got word-of-mouth lore on Grace," Manning said.

Another serendipitous find came when she called the historian of the Seventh Marquess Cholmondeley’s Houghton Hall. Manning’s previous attempts to get information there had been extremely frustrating. "I could not get anyone at the Hall to respond to my letters and e-mails...so in utter frustration one morning I picked up the telephone and called." When she finally got to speak to the historian he told her that if she had called earlier he would have been unaware of the name Grace Dalrymple Elliott, but that just a couple of days before he had found a cache of documents in an attic that had been untouched for at least 150 years. In that cache were letters and other correspondence relating to Grace, who had been under the protection of Lord Cholmondeley, who raised her only child.

That phone call led to Manning’s journey to Houghton Hall and another serendipitous occurrence. While she was there, Lord Cholmondeley unexpectedly came down from London. He had heard that an American writer was at the Hall, and he wanted to meet her. The young marquess was fascinated by Grace, whose existence he was unaware of.

During the odyssey of writing the book Manning went down a lot of dead-end roads. Her first year of researching netted very little. "I was so frustrated, thinking I’d made a bad decision to write this book," Manning said. She thinks because Grace was notorious, someone had destroyed her correspondence.

"I networked like crazy to track down any and all sources," Manning said. She tracked newspapers at the British Library’s newspaper annex in North London, went through period magazines and other reference sources at the British Library in Saint Pancras, and spent time at a number of places in London, including the National Archives in Kew and the Society of Genealogists near Blackfriars. In addition to going to Houghton Hall, she went to Lord Cholmondeley’s former London residence and to Grace’s last London address, which is now the site of the Natural History Museum.

Another find came via the internet where Manning learned of The Regency Elopement, about Grace’s granddaughter’s father.

Manning’s work has corrected misinformation that had been printed about Grace and filled in many of the gaps in her life. Because of Manning’s exhaustive efforts, we now know Grace was buried in Paris’s Pere Lachaise cemetery, even though the tombstone was removed in 1992.

While obtaining information was often frustrating, one snippet of information would lead to another, and the body of information began to snowball. Manning turned in her manuscript a month late because she kept having to go back and add new information. "I could have used another six months on the book, but I’d signed a contract," said Manning.

Would she do it all again? Yes. Now, before any royalties have come in, Manning has broken even. "I feel that I had to go all out and invest in the research and travel and additional researchers because I had to prove myself as a biographer who could handle historical research."

She had intended to follow Grace’s story with one on Grace’s friend Lady Worsley, an heiress who, like Grace, went through a scandalous divorce. Manning may still write that book, but she became discouraged when she learned that someone else had beat her to it.

Manning recently completed a proposal for another biography of one (or more) now-obscure women who were prominent in the late Georgian era and says she’s bitten her fingernails down to the quick waiting for her [agent’s] response.

This article appeared in the Quizzing Glass, January-February, 2006.

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