Monday, February 05, 2024

Interview with M. A. McLaughlin about her atmospheric dual-period novel The Lost Dresses of Italy

In 1947, costume historian Marianne Baxter, a war widow, accepts the invitation of her colleague and college friend Rufina to travel to Verona to restore three Victorian-era dresses for an upcoming museum exhibition. The dresses, Marianne discovers, once belonged to Christina Rossetti, who had vacationed in Italy in 1864 and seemingly abandoned her garments, which had been hidden in an old trunk since that time. As Marianne works to get the dresses into presentable shape, she contends with the difficult museum director while looking into mysteries involving the renowned, reclusive poet. A second narrative thread features Christina on her journey to Italy, which involves a request from her late father. M. A. McLaughlin's The Lost Dresses of Italy (Alcove Press, Feb. 6) is a novel about secrets from the past, unexpected romance, and the inner lives of women that lets you travel vicariously to a beautiful, historic place and learn details about antique clothing restoration. As Marty Ambrose, the author has previously written a trilogy of mysteries about Claire Clairmont, the last surviving member of the Byron/Shelley circle. My thanks to Marty for answering questions for this blog interview!


The novel offers an interesting pathway into history, one you don’t often see – through the medium of clothing, and how dresses from Victorian times can tell stories about the women who wore them. What got you interested in costume history?

This is an intriguing story. I’ve always been interested in antique clothing and textiles because I learned to sew and repair fabric when I was young, but the real obsession began with an incident that occurred when I was eighteen. My mother’s Aunt Lily passed away in her late seventies—unmarried and still living in her downtown home that was full of old furniture and knick-knacks. When Mom and I were sorting through her things and, at the end of the day, we opened her cedar trunk where we found carefully-preserved, antique clothing and hand-embroidered lace handkerchiefs, along with . . . a wedding certificate. I was stunned. It turned out my great-aunt had a secret marriage, and the truth had been hidden away for years, along with her dresses.

Unfortunately, I never found the answer as to why my great aunt kept her marriage secret (my mom and I did learn that some of the family knew about it), or why she had chosen to place those particular items in her trunk, but I never forgot the incident. It remained a mystery; however, it set me on the road to building my own vintage collection, and I filed the incident away (it became central to plot of The Lost Dresses of Italy). You never know how one unexpected event like that can be re-fashioned (pun intended) into a creative project years later. Serendipity.

The descriptions of Christina Rossetti’s travels in Milan and Verona are exquisite, and I loved spending time in both places. What did you learn on your own travels to these sites?

Well, as you suggest, Italy is a magical place for a novelist. The first historical background information that I researched during my time in Milan was how the fashion industry started up again after WWII, manufacturing the exquisite fabrics for which Italy had always been famous. In particular, I studied how those textiles are produced and why the Italian silks, in particular, are so sought after (Como provides 70% of Europe’s silk). The reason is surprisingly simple: the mulberry trees planted around Lake Como attract silkworms which produce the threads that are then woven into luxurious fabrics, using the same, centuries-old processes. Of course, that meant a cruise around Lake Como!

The second part of my research was absorbing the rich details of Italian settings that were a part of Christina Rossetti’s trip there: Milan, Lake Como, and Verona. In particular, during my stay in Verona, where much of The Lost Dresses of Italy takes place, I visited the exact locales that Rossetti refenced in her letters and found within them what I call “emotional touchpoint” locations—places that set my imagination on fire—which then become significant plot points in my novel. For example, I spent a long afternoon at Juliet’s Tomb in Verona, which is such a poetic, beautifully romantic spot, that it became part of a poignant scene for Christina. I like to create settings that almost become characters in themselves, and I can’t fathom how I would do that without traveling to the actual places I include in my novels.

The Lost Dresses of Italy is a dual-period novel, but distinctive since both stories are set in the past. What drew you to writing about postwar Italy?

When I started conceptualizing the themes of love and loss in this book in 2021, our world was emerging from the Covid pandemic, and I was speculating on how we could ever start over after such a traumatic time; then, Hurricane Ian hit SW Florida in September 28, 2022, and we lost pretty much everything we owned. The level of destruction in our community was staggering, and it seemed inconceivable that we could ever “go back to normal” when so many beloved places were either severely damaged or just gone. As I thought about how to connect those feelings into a second narrative, it led me to one of the worst recoveries that I could imagine: the aftermath of WWII. I’ve read a lot of historical fiction about the time during the war, but not how the survivors found the strength to move forward.

Since I knew I wanted to set my novel in Verona, I started digging into the post-war recovery issues that Northern Italy faced: the cities had sustained massive damage, the economy was decimated, and people literally had no food or clothing. Even worse, families had been torn apart in the war between those who supported Fascism and those who opposed it. Everyone suffered. However, the Italians desperately wanted to put the war behind them, and that inspired me. Anytime people have to rebuild after a war or natural disaster, it feels overwhelming, but somehow the human spirit finds a way—with grace and courage. I wanted to portray that in my novel.

What inspired you to write about Christina Rossetti, and to imagine the inner life and adventures of this private woman?

I’ve always been fascinated by Christina Rossetti and have taught her works for a number of years. Writing in both English and Italian, she has this amazingly ability to hit perfect pitch in her poetry, such as in “Fata Morgana” (which is referenced in my novel) with lines like, “It breaks the sunlight bound on bound:/ goes singing as it leaps along . . .” Stunning. Immersing myself in her poetry again propelled me to pay attention to the sound of my sentence flow and make my prose as poetic as possible without sounding too “flowery.” But Rossetti also has always been a source of curiosity for me, too, because she wrote both delicate lyrics typical of a Victorian female poet and yet, also, erotically-charged sonnets not-so-typical of a woman of her era, such as the Monna Innominata, which translates to the “hidden woman.” How fitting since her inner life is expressed only in her poetry; she rarely revealed her personal thoughts in her letters. More specifically, she took a three-week trip through northern Italy and spoke about it in only one letter but, when she returned to London afterwards, she broke off with her suitor, and wrote that sensual sonnet sequence. So, I decided to fill in the gaps of her mysterious time there with a mystery and a romance. It certainly could have happened.

Claire Clairmont and Christina Rossetti are both members of famous literary families, while Marianne Baxter, though fictional, also has an intriguing career and a backstory that’s shaped her character. What overall qualities do you look for in choosing and crafting your historical heroines?

First of all, I love the idea of giving voice to literary women who may have been relegated to secondary roles in the lives of their more famous siblings, lovers, or husbands. They often produced amazing work that has been overlooked, as well. Claire Clairmont was overshadowed by her celebrity lover, Lord Byron, as well as her renown step-sister, Mary Shelley—the author of Frankenstein—yet Clairmont was a witty, sophisticated author in her own right. Similarly, Christina Rossetti was eclipsed by her charismatic brother, Dante Gabriel, even though her poetry was considered some of the finest penned by a Victorian poet. Clairmont and Rossetti were both independent thinkers, often pushing back against the traditional roles of women during their eras, which also makes for an interesting character. Secondly, I try to create heroines who are struggling with challenges of a woman’s life, while trying to establish their own identity. Marianne is a grieving WWII widow who goes to Italy to create a dress exhibit of Rossetti’s dresses, but she finds more than she bargained for: love, conspiracy, and betrayal. Yet she emerges from all of these unexpected and dangerous turns in her life as a stronger woman. I think we all need to read those kinds of stories where women triumph over adversity.

How does your fiction-writing career build upon your academic background and scholarly interests?

Certainly, I’ve spent most of my academic career studying and teaching authors from the nineteenth century—my particular area of expertise—including Christina Rossetti. This foundation has helped enormously when I’m researching my novels because I already know quite a bit about the literary figures I include in my books, including their works and their lives. Nevertheless, transforming these literati into fictional characters is tricky because I have to reach that sweet spot of where historical facts blend with imaginative recreations. Readers want a good story but also a level of accuracy so, if anything, writing about some of my favorite authors has made me even more meticulous in my research. I want my audience to come away with being intrigued enough to read further in an author’s work. Only then, do I feel that I have successfully done my job. Authors need to do everything they can to nudge readers into discovering these brilliant poets and writers from the past.


M. A. McLaughlin Bio:

Marty Ambrose-McLaughlin is an award-winning, multi-published author, including a historical mystery trilogy set around the Byron/Shelley circle in nineteenth-century Italy, which earned starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, as well as a gold medal for historical fiction in the Florida Writers Association's Literary Palm Award. She completed her M.Phil. at the University of York (England) and teaches nineteenth-century British literature, composition, and fiction writing at Florida Southwestern State College. She has also given numerous workshops in the U.S. and abroad on all aspects of creating/publishing a novel, and is a member of The Byron Society, Historical Novel Society, Florida Writers Association, and Women's Fiction Writers Association. Her latest novel, The Lost Dresses of Italy, will be published by Alcove Press in February, 2024.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9:49 AM

    Closer and closer Marty takes us into history, Rosetti's poetry, Marty's writing process, the pursuit of truth--a lovely, necessary journey to make us better! She makes us better readers and better people!