It’s hard to say for certain when my addiction to all things English began. Perhaps with my first Barbara Cartland novel, The Husband Hunters. Published in 1976, the story revolved around a plain, yet virtuous, older sister, two beautiful, yet vapid, younger sisters—diamonds of the first water, no less—and an arrogantly indifferent Duke. Andrina’s audacious plan: to launch her sisters into Regency Society in the hopes of landing a Duke, an Earl, or, at the very least, a Viscount. From taffeta and silk ball gowns worn by waifish heroines with heart-shaped faces. To intricately-folded cravats that framed men with high foreheads and thin, seemingly cruel lips. To the pomposity and scandalous affairs of Prinny (aka Prince Regent and, finally, King George IV). Fascinating—and somewhat confusing—stuff to a tweenage Pennsylvania tomboy with an overactive imagination.
In addition to being a highly prolific author, Cartland was a character in real life. One interesting tidbit: she was Step-Grandmother to Lady Diana Spencer, who we all know grew up to become Diana, Princess of Wales. Alas, the two were not close. In Tina Brown’s book, The Diana Chronicles, Barbara Cartland is quoted as saying, “The only books Diana ever read were mine, and they weren’t awfully good for her.” Hmmmm? One might argue that Prince Charles has a high forehead and thin, seemingly cruel lips, just like Barbara Cartland’s high-in-the-instep heroes. That could explain a lot.
My love for Barbara Cartland soon led me to Georgette Heyer. In fact, Heyer is often credited with starting the Regency Romance genre that I still enjoy today. Reading Heyer’s Arabella, I fell in girl-love with the saucy and headstrong Arabella Tallent who spun outrageous claims of fortune and nobility as comeuppance to the haughty Robert Beamaris. Haven’t read Heyer? I urge you to give her a try. In fact, during a recent visit to Barnes and Noble, I happened to notice that her books have been reissued with lovely vintage-looking covers.
At school I was introduced to Jane Austen. But what can I say about Austen that hasn’t already been said—ad infinitum. Moving on.
Other romantic classics set in England soon followed. Heathcliff and Catherine. Jane Eyre and Rochester. Buttercup and Westley. Okay, I’m not entirely sure Princess Bride took place in England, but if it didn’t, it should have. And, of course, Romeo and Juliet. If I’m honest, however, the last two annoyed me from the get-go. A poignant tale of star-crossed lovers? Hardly! More a primer for what not to do if you’re ever lucky enough to be embroiled in an epic love story involving feuding families.
For years I was content to lose myself in my books, day-dreaming about what it would have been like to live in England during the Regency or even Victorian Period. But overall I was okay with it because, hey, that was the past, and I was a Modern Girl. And then the inexplicable happened. While browsing in Borders (R.I.P), I picked up a trade paperback called, Bridget Jones’s Diary.
And here I must share an aside. A few days ago, someone asked me if I’d ever seen a movie that was better than the book. “Never!” I scoffed. But you know what they say about using definitives—writer (or in my case, speaker) beware. Helen Fielding’s book was mildly amusing. Seeing her story come to life in all of Renee Zellwegger’s full-figured glory, Colin Firth’s deprecating charm, and Hugh Grant’s insouciant callousness was nothing short of magnificent. And going by Zellwegger’s Academy Award nomination, I wasn’t the only one captivated by her performance.
After seeing Bridget Jones on the big screen, it hit me—I want to be a Modern English Girl! I want to smoke a fag! Well, not really. I’m a staunch anti-smoker. So I want to turn my nose up at the offer to smoke a fag. I want to go shopping in quaint English thrift shops and toss my vintage finds into the boot of my car. I want a cute lorry driver with a Cockney accent to wink at me and call me “luv.” (I already have someone who loves me, and I plan on taking him to England with me someday.) I want to live in a shabby chic cottage—as long as it comes with central air and is in equal walking distance to a drafty castle, a stately manor home, and a charming pub where everyone knows my name.
That’s a tall order to fill—and probably not very realistic. Or so I thought. And then I found Katie Fforde. And she gave me everything I asked for in 500 pages or less.
My first Kate Fforde book was Life Skills. I found it in the bargain bin at Books-a-Million (my least favorite bookstore). The author name caught my eye because I am a big fan of Jasper Fforde's Tuesday Next mystery series. And yes, they are indeed related—she is married to his cousin. (FYI: their books could not be any more different. In fact, the only thing they have in common is location. They all take place in their home country of England.) But back to Life Skills. I quite liked the cover—cute blonde in a jaunty sailor cap throwing a heart-shaped life preserver. (Probably this has something to do with my husband, who is the son of a son of a sailor.) I so enjoyed this story about a canal boat ride from London to Birmingham that I immediately scrambled to get my hands on more of her work. It wasn't easy. Katie Fforde hadn't quite caught on here "across the pond," and I had to order through international book distributors or Amazon UK. I’m happy to say that today it is much easier to get her books.
So why read should you Katie Fforde? Well, if you are someone like me—a complete Anglophile who is convinced she was born on the wrong side of the pond—you will relish her books like a box of your favorite chocolates. Fforde's character's are engaging, likeable, and offer a realistic portrayal of today's women. In other words, her heroines are no size-two Carrie Bradshaw. Fforde's words paint a virtual landscape of cozy cottages, charming villages, and the omnipresent friendly pub. She’s big on family and friends, and her books make me smile. Fforde develops quirky secondary characters that you care about. Even better, Fforde ensures that everyone gets their happy ending.