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Beneath the Covers, Past
A Romance Column

An Interview with Katharine Ashe followed by an Interview with her main character "Libby" from The Prince.

The Prince by Katharine Ashe is the last book in the “Devil Duke series.” With each new book, she outdoes herself. The latest is always better than the last. As with most of her books, she writes how nothing on the surface is what it seems to be. Both the hero and heroine hide their identity, she her gender, and he his background. He becomes a portrait painter so no one will know he is a prince, and she dresses up as a man, hiding the fact she is a woman. A subplot involving murdered women and grave robbers adds to the mystery of whether the hero and heroine’s secrets will be found out.

At the heart of the novel is how Libby Shaw and Ziyaeddin Mizra, aka as Ibrahim Kent, strive to save lives. He does it metaphorically, painting the real person, healing someone emotionally, while she does it literally, attempting to heal the body surgically. This is a refreshing adventure story with a theme of friendship and respect.

Elise Cooper: Were you influenced by the movie “Yentl,” where she dresses as a man to become a Rabbi?

Katharine Ashe: I saw “Yentl” years ago. Maybe it had been impressed on my imagination. But actually, the idea came to me while doing research for my previous novel, The Duke. I was walking in Edinburgh and happened upon Surgeons’ Hall, built in the late 1820s, in the middle of downtown Edinburgh. I spent hours in its amazing little museum.


Elise: Did you ever think it far-fetched to have your main heroine, Libby, dress as a man to become a doctor?

Katharine: As I was searching in the Surgeons’ Hall gift shop I found a biography of Dr. James Barry, which inspired Libby’s disguise. He was formerlyMargaret Buckley,a woman who at nineteen changed her name and appearance to enter medical school in Edinburgh in 1809.This was necessary because most men in nineteenth century Britain believed that women lacked the physical and moral nature to be physicians or surgeons.It was not until Barry was on his deathbed that it was discovered he had a female body. I thought that if James Barry could do it for a lifetime, then my character could do it for a year. And I wondered: how many women who sought a different life than they were allowed did this?


Elise: Libby had a relationship, did Dr. Barry?

Katharine: Barry’s most recent biographers are very careful about coming to conclusions. It seems that some people probably knew. We do know that while stationed in Cape Town he had a very close relationship with the Governor. It is possible they had a father/son bond, but it is also possible they were lovers. The Governor was actually accused of it, which is something I wrote into my novel. It’s always fascinating to me how history can sometimes be crystal clear and sometimes frustratingly opaque.


Elise: In some ways Charles Bell is the jumping off for the story?

Katharine: I discovered the existence of Sir Charles Bell too while in the museum. He was a brilliant Scottish surgeon in the early 19th Century. Besides being a medical man he was also an amazing painter. At the time I discovered him, I already knew Libby wanted to be a surgeon and Ziyaeddin would be a portrait artist. Bell was able to blend for me both of my characters’ worlds, a real historical person bringing together my heroine, a hopeful surgeon, and my hero, a painter.


Elise: How so?

Katharine: Libby first asks Ziyaeddin to paint portraits and sign her name to them. She does it in the hopes that Bell might see how well she paints, with such anatomically accuracy, and then allow her to study medicine as his apprentice even though she is a woman. When Ziyaeddin refuses, she begs him to sign her alias name, Joseph Smart. Unwilling to put any other person’s name on his work, though, Ziyaeddin objects to this plan too.


Elise: How did they meet?

Katharine: Libby and Ziyaeddin first appeared separately in my novel The Rogue. It was then I knew they were destined to be together. I just couldn’t resist throwing together two such different people: she always in motion, and he almost preternaturally still. They finally meet in the third book in the series, The Duke, when she comes upon him reading in a castle’s library and after only that brief encounter he draws her face perfectly.


Elise: Why Edinburgh?

Katharine: At this period in the British Empire, Edinburgh was the center of constant movement, with peoples from all over the world studying medicine, engineering, and philosophy at the university, and the port of Leith a hub of global mercantile activity. Scientifically, politically, and culturally Edinburgh was extraordinarily sophisticated.


Elise: How did you do the research, because there were some medical details?

Katharine: I did an enormous amount of research for this novel, including reading everything I could get my hands on by Charles Bell, and doing research at Duke University’s Rubenstein’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. I read the sorts of books Libby would have read, like textbooks and medical tomes, and I researched the medical community and what it was like to be an apprentice in Edinburgh at that time. I also consulted with physicians and medical experts on many details.


Elise: Is the part about selling bodies true?


Katharine: Yes. Enterprising businesspeople sold cadavers to surgical schools all over Britain at this time. Some, however, turned to robbing graves to acquire the bodies, so the new Edinburgh police force put guards on the graveyards to stop them. Then two men started killing poor people they thought would not be missed, to supply their surgical school customers. They were eventually discovered, convicted, and hanged, and their own bodies were used for autopsies. The skin of one was made into everyday objects as a lesson to other potential criminals.


Elise: What is your writing style?

Katharine: I love writing stories about people appearing to be one thing on the outside yet the reality is much more complex. Few of us are really entirely what we appear to be on the outside. I think we all wear masks of a sort, and play various roles according to need. In my novels, I allow my characters to take this to extremes, donning disguises and other personae so that I can fully explore through them the journey from uncertainty about the self to truth and honesty.


Elise: What about this story?

Katharine: I’ve often written at least either a hero or heroine living behind masks; it’s a common theme in my novels. This time, however, both the hero and heroine wear masks, but they know about the other’s disguise, and even helped each other maintain the masquerade to others. This created a really powerful intimacy between them immediately, even as they fight to resist their attraction.


Elise: Do you think Libby is your most sexually forward heroine?

Katharine: Probably, but principally because as a person of medicine she is entirely comfortable with the human body. Raised entirely by her adoptive father who didn’t require her to confine herself to “ladylike” pursuits, she lived with more freedom than many of her peers. Also, she is compulsively honest, so her curiosity about the human body has few limits. That said, most of my heroines are unafraid of their sexuality.


Elise: A heads up about your next book?

Katharine: This was the last book of the series, and I haven’t yet announced my next work. But I can say now that my next novel will be full of rich history, powerful emotion, and some mystery too!




An Interview with Elizabeth "Libby" Shaw, the Lead Character from The Prince.

You are pretty single-minded about achieving your goal to become a doctor even though the social norms emphasized women lacked the physical and moral nature to be physicians or surgeons. But it is obvious you could not do it without Ziyaeddin Mizra who is your greatest supporter and advocate. Thanks for the interview.


Elise Cooper: So why do you want to be a surgeon?

Libby: The human body is absolutely fascinating, especially the skeletal and muscular systems. Also, I like solving puzzles and making order of that which is disordered. When the body is broken or damaged, I find great joy in repairing it.


Elise: Are you going to pretend the rest of your life that you are a man or do you think eventually society will accept that there can be women doctors?
a. I know you said “Once I have proven myself equal to men in my program I will reveal the truth and they will all have to accept me”

Libby: I haven’t plans beyond achieving my diploma, which will require several more sessions of classes and the completion of a diploma project and then the exam. I’ve no intention of quitting until I have accomplished this and gained entrance into the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.


Elise: How did your father influence you?

Libby: My father is an extraordinarily talented physician and an exceptionally generous teacher. I had an unusual childhood—for a girl—following him from patient’s bedside to bedside, assisting him in his practice. His belief that I had the capacity of mind to understand medicine allowed me to learn at his side.


Elise: Are there any great problems to pretending to be a man-what is the worst?

Libby: The freedom men have to urinate anyplace and any time they wish, which I do not also enjoy. There are other inconveniences, but this has caused me the most trouble so far, when I am among my fellow students and find myself in desperate need, and there are no alternatives to exposing my sex—quite literally!

Elise: That is so gross and unsanitary!


Elise: Then how would you compare being a man versus being a woman?

Libby: Each has its benefits and drawbacks. But I believe the restraints that our laws and customs impose on women are more noxious than those imposed on men, including barring women from entering many professions for which they are perfectly well qualified.


Elise: Do you consider yourself a bookworm nerd?

Libby: I am unfamiliar with the word “nerd.” I would never actually ingest the pages of a book. I have sometimes cursed bookworms aloud for eating away sections of entire pages that I have needed to read! But you certainly must mean the use of the word “bookworm” metaphorically.


Elise: I meant a person unusually devoted to reading and studying?

Libby: How delightful that we use that word in that manner, equating the physical hunger for food with the intellectual hunger for knowledge or the emotional hunger for entertainment found in a book. I had a largely solitary childhood, and books gave me both education and amusement, and also companionship. I guess I do spend as much time inside books as any paper-eating maggot. It is true that when I am especially agitated it becomes difficult to read. These moments are vexing.


Elise: Would you diagnose yourself as being obsessive-compulsive and why?

Libby: I am unfamiliar with that exact term. But I do sometimes find myself overly preoccupied with certain thoughts and worries. Occasionally such worries grow so large that I feel obliged to take actions that will stanch the worry some.


Elise: When you first me Ziyaeddin what was your first impression?

Libby: I met him more than two years ago at Haiknayes Castle, the home of the Duke of Loch Irvine, who is a particular friend of my father and me. I went to the library to retrieve a book and the strange man there teased me. He is a dreadful tease, actually. I tell him not to, yet he teases me anyway. At first it disconcerted me; I prefer direct speech. But I have become accustomed to it and have even learned to tease him, which I think he enjoys.


Elise: Were you offended when he told you your idea was “absurd?”

Libby: I don’t take offence easily. I thought he was wrong to reject the idea so speedily (and look how well it has turned out, after all—so ha ha!). But mostly I felt desperation. I really had no other choice.


Elise: Do you think you as a future surgeon and he as a portrait painter have a lot in common regarding the human body?

Libby: Not particularly. But he does. He insists on it. He is exasperating. And very handsome. And kind. And generous. And unexpectedly fierce at times. But exasperating. It is true that I have come to see that he paints not only what is on the outside of a person, but also what is within that person—pain, longing, fear, joy. He is an exceptionally fine artist. I wonder sometimes why he wishes to paint me. What I am within is entirely on the surface for everybody to see.


Elise: It seems you have feelings for him-Does he have feelings for you?

Libby: I don’t know that he has feelings for me beyond exasperation and perhaps a mild curiosity. And amusement. I do amuse him. And friendship; I believe he does consider me a friend, despite constantly telling me to “be gone” whenever I interrupt him—but he is an artist and must have his quiet, so I concede that to him. As for me, I have felt frustrated with him almost from the start and attraction and exceptionally strong sexual desire, and affection. Regarding this last, I like most people. I don’t like cruel or unkind people, or people who think only of their own needs and desires or of superficialities.

Elise: Are you saying he is cruel?

Libby: NO! He is none of those. I have liked him from the second instance upon which we met, when we spoke in the alleyway and he teased me about my whiskers, which, it’s true, were horrendous. But I think it is also due to his character. There is a peace within him that, I believe, must have been hard won. I don’t know how. But I suspect he has suffered quite a lot in his past, and his strength came from surviving that.


Elise: How would you describe your relationship with Ziyaeddin?

Libby: He tolerates my interruptions, studies me for his art, and sometimes looks at me in a manner I cannot understand. I admire his health, his generosity, his strength of both body and character, and his stillness. He is verystill (which I am never). That is at least partially due to his lack of a proper prosthetic foot (which I will remedy, despite his objections)


Elise: How did you come up with the idea of a prosthetic leg-I thought they did not exist?

Libby: Humans have made prostheses since humans have lost limbs—that is, forever. There are prosthetic hands, arms, feet, legs, eyes, even phalluses. There have been for centuries. That said, modern foot and leg prostheses are especially excellent, employing springs and hinges that cause the replacement limb to mimic the motion of the actual limb. In the case of prosthetic legs, this can impact the wearer’s stride dramatically and save unnecessary bone loss and degradation of joint tissue. I have told Ziyaeddin this, and that a replacement foot will relieve his chronic pain, but he is very stubborn.


Elise: Let’s go back to the previous question because I do not think you answered it?

Libby: Oh—I suppose we are friends. That is, I am perhaps his friend, and he is my friend whom I very much want to kiss.


Elise: Do you think you are pretty forward for a woman-telling Ziyaeddin you want to kiss him and to ask him to show you how the male anatomy works?

Libby: A true person of medicine must study the human experience in all its varied functions, actions, and reactions. I am a true person of medicine. Also, he is very handsome.


Elise: What do you do for fun?

Libby: I study medicine. That is really the most fun anybody can have. But I think you are asking me what I do for amusement in addition to that. I catalogue my collection of plaster bones, teach my friend Coira how to read, and occasionally assist Mrs. Coutts in drying herbs for the kitchen, some of which I use in my personal apothecary. (Ziyaeddin has just come into the room and asked me what I am doing, so I told him this question.)


Elise: What does he think?

Libby: He says that I must respond, “I disturb my host’s peace to excess.” But I don’t specifically do that for amusement, so I cannot include it in the list here. I will not, by the way, share with him any of my actual responses to these questions. And after all, he already knows that I find him physically appealing and that he exasperates me.


Elise: What are your interests?

Libby: Medicine. Anatomy. Surgery. Fixing illnesses and injuries. And, if I must be entirely honest (which I always am; it is my most inconvenient trait), I am interested in the foreign-born portrait artist with whom I now live.


Elise: If you could turn back the clock would you do anything differently today?'

Libby: What a nonsensical question.


Elise: Is there anything you want to add, if so please do?

Libby: Thank you for this invitation to speak with you. You are very kind.

Elise: Thank you for doing this. I appreciate your openness and honesty about your life

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