I first read Ursula Bloom’s books as a teenager, curled up in my bedroom in my grandparents’ house. I had found her books, along with many other romances, in the wardrobe, packed in amongst my grandmother’s evening gowns and fur stoles. The books smelled faintly of lily-of-the-valley perfume. Even now that scent transports me straight back to that sunlit room and the lure of the forbidden because it seemed to me that as the books had been hidden away out of sight there must be something exotic and daring about them.
I was reminded of this when I re-read Ursula Bloom’s Wonder Cruise recently. It’s interesting how vividly I could identify with the heroine, Ann, and her battle with the forbidden. The exoticism of a cruise awakens in Ann impulses that are very contrary to her dull life at home. She is torn between the vivid excitement that this different life offers and a deeply ingrained sense of morality.
There is no doubt that the exotic and different, the thing that takes us out of our element and gives us new experiences, can be very seductive. For Ann it is travel that opens her eyes to a way of life so different from her own but the exotic can be found in anything unusual, whether it is at home or abroad. Exoticism comes from something distant, whether it is in time or place, shape or for. It’s also individual. Something that is exotic to me could be commonplace to another person.
Like Ann in Wonder Cruise, I find romance in travel. I’ve been fortunate enough to sail amongst icebergs, drive across deserts, see the Northern Lights, walk through the jungle and the cloud forest and camp in the African bush. All these experiences have given me different perspectives and opened up my eyes and my mind to wondrous things.
In the same way that difference and distance can be exotic so too can the past. Reading and writing about history is to escape into a different world, to a time and place that is far away, romantic, seductive. Which of us has not wanted, even if it is only for a moment, to witness in person a scene from a favourite book, to step back in time? Some of the most exotic places are easily accessible to us via our imaginations. I work as a guide and historian at Ashdown House in Oxfordshire and can think of few places more exotic. It’s a tiny white 17th century palace set high on the hills in a windswept location. In writing about it I have tried to capture the same vivid atmosphere a reader experiences in Wuthering Heights or Rebecca, that sense of stepping into the past and being wrapped about in the story.
House of Shadows, my romantic historical mystery set at Ashdown, draws on the story of Elizabeth the Winter Queen and her secret marriage to William, First Earl of Craven. I hope that I have created a world in the imagination that is both exotic and intriguing: Elizabeth’s seventeenth century court in The Hague, the mystical beliefs of the Knights of the Rosy Cross, the beauty and isolation of Ashdown itself. Whether we travel in reality or in our imagination, the opportunities for romance and the exotic are endless. I wonder where my reading will take me next…