Today’s interview is with the talented and gracious Emily Brightwell. With her charming Mrs. Jeffries series, Emily is the Queen of historical cozies. Check out her website to learn more. And since I will not attempt to get the order right for all her books, you can click here to get the list directly from the source!
Her most recent novel, Mrs. Jeffries Wins The Prize, is the 34th in the series, and a wonderful adventure with old friends and new ones. It also tackles the British presence in India, with an eye towards the British women who, if they were brave enough to venture there, were often rewarded by marrying up in the world. I found a fascinating article about that; apparently the women who couldn’t bag a husband were sent home as “returned empties.” Oh, my!
Emily gives a shout-out to YA author Christopher Pike, who shares both her optimism and her prolific nature, having written a dizzying number of books.
As always, if you’d rather read than listen, below is a transcript. Enjoy!
Transcript for Interview with Emily Brightwell
Laura Brennan: My guest today is the author of the charming and New York Times best-selling Victorian mysteries, known affectionately as the Mrs. Jeffries series. Combining a cozy sensibility with historical mysteries and a beloved cast of supporting characters, Emily Brightwell has created her own genre and a world readers return to with pleasure. Emily, thank you so much for joining me.
Emily Brightwell: And thank you very much for having me.
LB: Tell me a little bit about how you got started writing.
EB: I was always a secret scribbler. It was only when I was a manager, human resources manager, that I realized that I didn’t want to be a secret scribbler, I wanted to be a real scribbler. So I started writing and I was pretty analytical when I looked at genre fiction, because that was what I enjoyed reading. Mysteries have always been my first love, but I also do like romances very very much. And I realize that that was probably the best way to get into publication, which is what my goal was. So I wrote for what was then the Silhouette line, but I believe now Silhouette’s been taken over by Harlequin. So I wrote three of those romances, and another romance for Meteor Publishing, which then got bought out by Harlequin/Silhouette and never got published. But my very first sale was to a romance publisher in Germany, and I was paid the princely sum of $300 for it, I kid you not.
But it was a great experience, and I started writing the Mrs. Jeffries series because I heard that Berkeley at that time was looking to do a Victorian series that was a bit more cozy than, say, Anne Perry.
LB: Yes, there’s nothing cozy about Anne Perry.
EB: No, there’s not. And she’s a brilliant writer, I was in no way disparaging that. I just happen to really enjoy what I do, which is writing cozies.
LB: Well, they are such interesting cozies, because they are set in a very different world and you have a real connection to England, I understand.
EB: Yes, I do, and his name is Richard and he is my husband. We’ve gone back and forth many times, I lived there for several years, we go back and forth. I absolutely adore England. I adore the United Kingdom. It’s a wonderful, wonderful place, and you get inspired just walking around some of the streets. You can actually see the fog coming in off the river and know that someone’s being stalked by killer, and Mrs. Jeffries will catch them.
LB: I was so chuffed that your books have been translated into Japanese.
EB: Yes, they sold the first three to Japan. I was rather amazed myself, but my husband said, he goes, well, it’s a group effort, and that’s a society that has great respect for the efforts of a group, and so perhaps that’s what appealed to them. We’ve also had a sale for the first book to Hungary, which I also thought was interesting.
LB: Your supporting cast of characters is tremendous.
EB: So it’s huge, and if I leave anyone out I get emails from people who — I’ve left Dr. Bosworth out now for five books and I’ve had emails about that. But, yes, they grow and as the writer you think, oh my goodness, what have I done? There’s way too many people here.
LB: Oh, but that is part of the pleasure, and the good doctor was himself a little miffed in this past book. I like how you handled that.
EB: Oh, yes, his feelings were really hurt because one of the overreaching themes that I always try to deal with is that ordinary human beings are capable of the most extraordinary acts, and that once you get involved in actually working for justice, which is how they perceive themselves, once you do that, you get smitten by — you keep wanting to do it. When you really don’t get a chance to do it because they’re not coming to ask you any questions, you get a little bit miffed.
LB: The other thing that you explore so well is the concept of family, that they are creating their own family.
EB: Yes, and I did that quite deliberately. I’ve been very, very lucky in my life in that I have a wonderful family, both a wonderful family I was born into and a wonderful extended family. But I’ve known so many people, as I’ve gone through life, who had to create their own family for whatever their reasons were. And that sort of fascinated me. So I took a diverse bunch of characters and I gave them all a backstory where they pretty much had to create their own family. And it sort of worked very well and I’ve been very happy with it. Sometimes I think that maybe I’ve gone a bit too far, but then I think, what the heck. That’s what we do!
LB: That’s right. I had the pleasure of moderating panel you were on and you said something then that always stuck with me, which is that you very deliberately look into a piece of the social issues that Victorians were dealing with at the time. Which aren’t actually all that different from the social issues we’re dealing with. So, while I believe the one you’re looking at in your latest book, Mrs. Jeffries Wins The Prize, is India, you also have two of your women questioning how important they are to the team.
EB: Oh, yes! I think women always do that. I am a thematic writer, and you’re absolutely right. I deal with social issues from that period of time, again you’re right, they’re exactly like the social issues were dealing with now.
LB: So, what was interesting to me was the idea that the women were being protected, and how they were being protected was they were being not allowed to fully participate.
EB: Right. And that is what has happened historically, and there are some good reasons for that because women usually did, at some point in history, need to be protected, though not as much as men ever thought. I think people try to protect those they love without realizing how damaging that can be to the self-esteem of the people they’re doing it to. I think in the book you’re referring to it was Betsy and — was it Mrs. Goodge?
LB: It was Luty.
EB: Yes. Luty and Betsy, both of them felt they were being shoved aside, Luty because she was old and Betsy because she was a mother. And I thought that when I was writing the book that I felt that when I first had young children, that you sort of get shoved aside with, no, you just take care of the kids. But everybody has something to contribute. And I really think it’s important that we should all protect one another, that we shouldn’t just protect somebody who we think is vulnerable. We should all protect each other. But we should also be open and willing to let people contribute when they want to and when they need to.
LB: That’s lovely. I love that. And I realize it’s a large cast of characters, but you do make sure that everyone to their abilities and to the benefit of everyone around them.
EB: Yes, because I think that’s what a family does, that’s what people do with one another. I’m a huge optimist. We may think the world is going to hell in a hand basket, but actually as a species, I think we have advanced tremendously. A hundred years ago, there were terrible things that could be done to you in the name of law and order. Nowadays in most civilized societies, that’s not true. I’m very very hopeful for our species and I like my books to reflect that.
LB: Okay, so let’s talk a little bit about your dynamic, because one of the other great pleasures of your book is that there’s kind of a Clark Kent/Superman thing going on.
EB: Oh, yeah, right. The household absolutely goes out of their way to make sure that their beloved inspector never finds out that he’s being helped enormously. And they do this for a very specific reason. He has always treated like human beings, not as objects put on this earth to serve him, which was how most servants were genuinely treated back in those days. But Witherspoon did not grow up expecting anything, he was actually quite poor, he and his mother. And he inherited everything from his Aunt Euphemia. And there’s an interesting story there, that I will tell in one of the books one of these days. So he perceived other human beings as being as important as he was.
LB: And you also, you don’t make the inspector a dolt in any way.
EB: I think I did in the earlier books. He actually, as he actually started investigating, he got better what he was doing, but I didn’t mean to make him a dolt, but thank you, I appreciate that.
LB: That actually ties in very much, it’s as if Mrs. Jeffries is making him, is training him to be a better and better detective as they go along.
EB: Oh, I think she is. I think she’s probably a woman who, if you could of measured IQs, Mrs. Jeffries and to some extent even Mrs. Goodge, were both very intelligent women but because of the structure of Victorian society, they didn’t get the opportunity to do anything that a man could do. So in the late Victorian period, I think women just sort of grabbed the moment when they could. And I know that Mrs. Jeffries certainly did because she’s one smart cookie.
LB: Let’s talk a little bit about Mrs. Goodge, because the emotional heart of the story is hers and her coming to terms with what she sees as a fatal mistake that she made.
EB: Right. Which caused the death of — she perceived it at first that she had caused the death of this young woman. When she first became a head cook in a very snotty little house out in the country, she ended up getting the woman fired and didn’t really mean to. And she’d lived with that all those years. But one of the things that I was trying to talk about in that instance was, she had learned from that mistake. And not only that she had learned, but that she had realized after Mrs. Jeffries and she talk about it, that she wasn’t that powerful, she wasn’t the only reason the girl got fired. Mrs. Goodge had to come to terms with the fact that her life had been very strange and she had spent most of it being a snob but she’s sort of almost redeemed herself in the later years of her life. She’s actually one of my favorite characters. And she, by the way, is very fond of Wiggins. She is the true grandmother figure to Wiggins.
LB: Oh, yes. Her arc in the course of the series has been overcoming her, the snobbery that was bred into her early in her life and becoming such an important part of the team.
EB: Yeah, and like I say, she’s actually become one of my very favorite characters. And before she was just sort of someone who was in there because she had to be, but I’ve loved watching her character grow and develop. That’s a great beauty of being a writer is, you have a very long series and it can get quite difficult to make the series interesting and to keep it growing. So the only thing really you can work with your characters and say, well how can I grow this person? How can I grow that person? Or, what can they understand and find out? And I’ve been quite an interesting experience.
LB: Yes, sometimes the ones who have the farthest to go when you start are the most interesting to play with.
EB: Right. And Mrs. Goodge really was a snob if you read the first few books. She’d sniff her nose in the air and look down on people. But then when she realized the world could be so incredibly corrupt, and that somebody as smart as her and as smart as Mrs. Jeffries and as goodhearted as Wiggins and some of the other characters, didn’t get a fair shake in life. Once that hit her, that’s when she began to change.
LB: So, for you, is that the most fun part of writing the novels, playing with the characters?
EB: Oh, yes. Absolutely. Playing with the characters. The plots fun, too. I always enjoy that. But playing with the characters. I did one book, it was about halfway through the series, or maybe three quarters of the way, where Inspector Nivens, Inspector Nivens realizes that — and he was sort of the nemesis for poor Inspector Witherspoon — Nivens realizes that he may have a leg up on the ladder of success, but he doesn’t have the love or the respect of the rank-and-file constables the way Inspector Witherspoon does. And there was actually a very, what I thought was a poignant scene in a pub when Nivens realizes this. And he gives Witherspoon some evidence that he needs that he didn’t have to give him. So, yes, that was a huge thing for me playing with my characters. Oh, and by the way, I get a lot of emails, where’s Inspector Nivens? Well, he’s been gone for about five books now, but I’m bringing him back soon.
LB: So, all right, the plots. They are crackerjack, they’re so much fun. How do you keep coming up with the plots? Because there’s 34 books.
EB: Yes, and I’m working on number 35 as we speak.
LB: Oh my gosh.
EB: I keep coming up with the plot because I read newspapers and I’m a thematic writer, and so with every book I write I say, Self, I say, what you want to write about? In the book that I’m writing now, which is called, Mrs. Jeffries Rights a Wrong, the theme of that book is: sins from the past, nothing stays hidden forever. No matter how much you want it to. So I keep coming up with plots because mainly I read the newspaper and I extrapolate from today and put back, put it back a hundred years, a hundred and fifteen years, and I hope I don’t keep repeating myself. But that’s a fine line we all walk as writers who do a series. You want to give your readers what they expect when they buy your book, but on the other hand you also want it to be creative and different enough that they feel they’re getting their money’s worth. To me, that’s very important.
LB: Why did you pick India?
EB: Oh, because it’s just such a fascinating place! And what the British did there was both horrific and fascinating. And if you look at modern India now and see the incredible challenges they are dealing with, you can see that a lot of it does trace back to the British Raj. And it was also a place where young women from both the working and the lower middle class could go to India, and because there was such a shortage of females, they could marry up. And that became a huge social thing in the 1880s and 90s, even as late as 1910, 1915, perhaps even later. And I thought, that’s just such a thing that a novelist can play with, these women who are smart and savvy and had the guts to go to India, usually working as a governess or a nursemaid and marry up. You could marry some nice, young Lieutenant. Back in those days, people up until, I think, 1888, they had to buy their commissions in the British Army. There was a huge reformation after that. So, I just thought that was so fun. And so I had these three snobbish women and one non-snobbish woman, and I just had fun with it.
LB: Well, class issues are something that you’re always tackling, how impermeable class still seems to be at the end of the Victorian Era.
EB: It was impermeable, but it was really rapidly changing, something that, when people watch Downton Abbey, they don’t really understand. Everyone thinks it changed because of WWI; it was actually changing in the 1880s and 90s. Because working class people had options, could emigrate to anywhere in the British Empire — Australia, New Zealand, Canada — which gave them a way out of a system that systematically held them down. And secondly, educational opportunities were getting better and better. So I actually think the world had begun to change. A lot of my research, I actually read newspapers from the period, and I read journals. Young women’s journals, young men’s journals, and things were never as set in stone as we think they are. Just like now! I mean, how many of us had a Leave it to Beaver upbringing? You’re probably too young to understand that allusion, but some of your listeners might.
LB: Oh, no, no, I remember Leave it to Beaver. Oh, yeah.
EB: I mean, how many human beings in the United States of America, growing up in the fifties, sixties, reruns, whatever, actually lived like Leave it to Beaver? But if you observed us from an outside point of view, you’d think that every middle class person was like that, or every upper-working class person. And that ain’t true.
LB: How much research do you do, still, for the novels?
EB: I have a library of wonderful books; like I said, my primary source is newspapers. There’s a place that I go to in England, and I have them send me them. They’re original newspapers. The book I’m working on now, I have a copy of — hang on, let me grab it — I have a copy of The Times from London, Wednesday, October 7th, 1896. And a newspaper is one of the most amazing things ever because, first of all, the ads are on the front page, the births, the deaths, the court circular. You can find out things that would take you hours to research anywhere else. So I research that. The things that are the most difficult to research are little, teeny, tiny things like, What did the inside of a police barracks look like? How long did they actually hold onto evidence in any particular case? Those were very difficult things to research. And sometimes you just take a guess and keep your fingers crossed.
LB: You have mentioned, on your website, the possibility of starting another series. Is that still in the works?
EB: Well, I’m thinking about it, but I’m getting older, so I better think about it fast! I have an idea for a trilogy that I wanted to write set against WWI, that involved the children, Smythe and Betsy’s daughter, Amanda.
EB: Yes. So I was actually thinking about doing that and, when I finish this contract, the current one I’m working on, I may take a year or so off and do it, yes. Because I’m actually fascinated with World War I as well.
LB: Oh, that would be so much to look forward to! That’s just wonderful.
EB: One thing I do want to say is that, I hope when people read the books, if they choose to, that they understand, I’m writing both for entertainment but, every single book, does what I think, try to make a point about life that I very strongly believe in. They don’t even have to see the point, just read the books.
LB: There is an optimism that shines through, they do, not only right the wrongs and make sure the innocent don’t get caught for a crime they didn’t commit, but they also, they come together even more strongly as your series continues. There’s a real optimism there.
EB: And I think optimism is important. I think the one thing that is doom for any species or any society is to roll up into a ball and say there’s nothing we can do about it. The great Christopher Pike, he was a young adult writer, and I was a huge fan of some of his work, he used to say, there’s always a choice. No matter how dim, how horrible, there’s always a choice in every circumstance. And I took that to heart, and I believe there’s always a choice, too, and the choice should always be going forward, doing the best you can, and helping. Doing justice. Helping. Doing whatever you can to make the world a better place. That’s very important to me.
LB: Oh, I love that. Thank you so much for talking to me!
EB: Well, thank you for asking me, I appreciate it so much. It gives me a chance to connect with my readers and hope they enjoy the books. Thank you.