It will probably come as no surprise to anyone who's read any of my books (or even my blog posts) that I like characters who are rule-breakers. I strive for historical accuracy in my books, but my most of my characters could hardly be called conventional (if I wrote about modern-day characters I doubt they’d be called conventional either). One of the readers who posts on my blog emailed me recently with some interesting questions about writing historical fiction and being accurate to the mores of the time. She asked if readers prefer historical accuracy in characters’ attitudes and behavior, however unpleasant by today’s standards, or a romantic whitewash of the past. Her question inspired my blog this week on my own website, and I thought it would be fun to revisit the topic here. Hoydens, after all, are rule-breakers by definition, and many of my fellow History Hoydens have written some of my favorite rule-breaking characters.
Part of researching an era is getting to know its conventions, the rules (many unwritten) that governed social interactions, from introductions to insults to courtship and marriage. And yet so many of my favorite characters defy conventions. Sir Percy Blakeney, a seemingly typical pink of the ton, has secret adventures in France as the Scarlet Pimpernel and (probably more shocking from the point of view of the English ton) marries a French actress. Sophy Stanton-Lacey in Heyer’s The Grand Sophy (one of my favorite Heyer heroines from the age of ten) drives a carriage down St. James’s Street, right past the gentlemen’s clubs. Teen-aged Philippa Somerville leaves her home in northern England and follows Francis Crawford of Lymond round the Mediterranean. And rule-breaking characters aren’t found only in works by historical novelists dealing with the conventions of the past. Shakespeare frequently has his characters defy the conventions of their world. Heroines such as Viola, Rosalind, and Imogen disguise themselves as men. Portia not only dons male attire but impersonates a lawyer (quite brilliantly). Benedick breaks with his best friend and Prince to consider Beatrice’s perspective when her cousin is (falsely) accused. Romeo and Juliet marry in secret in defiance of their parents, and Juliet deceives her parents by faking her own death to run off with Romeo.Elizabeth Bennet can’t get away with the behavior of some more social secure heroines but is definitely a convention-defier in her own way, from tramping through the mud to see Jane to refusing Mr. Collins’s proposal. She stops short, though, of behavior that would endanger her family's reputation and fragile position (unlike her sister Lydia). Jane Bennet is a more conventional foil for Elizabeth. I like Jane a lot as a character, but I’m not sure I’d want to read a book with her as the heroine. There certainly wouldn't be nearly the conflict if a man like Fitzwilliam Darcy fell in love with Jane rather than Elizabeth. Jane and Bingley's romance needs Darcy and Caroline Bingley to create complications. Elizabeth and Darcy have tension inherent in who they both are, not just in birth, but in personalities and approaches to life. It isn't just that Elizabeth comes from a different world than Darcy. Even in her own world, she's not precisely a conventional young woman.
In any era, one can find a wide range of behaviors, some well outside the accepted conventions of the day. Rules create obstacles. Having characters push against those obstacles can create wonderful conflict. The key, I think, is to create characters who would believably break rules based on who they are and the forces that have shaped them and to make sure to deal with the consequences of their rule breaking in the world round them.Emma Hamilton, whom Amanda brilliantly brought to life in Too Great a Lady, is a real life example of a woman who defied a number of the conventions of her day. She rose to dizzying heights but also suffered the consequences of breaking society's rules. In Amanda's vivid portrait, we see the forces and events that shape Emma into the woman she is.
George, the heroine of Kalen's Lord Sin, is also a rule-breaker, but unlike Emma Hamilton she was born to a secure position in society which affords her a certain amount of protection. And in the course of the book, we learn enough about her past and see enough of her family and friends to understand why she's a rule-breaker. Though she is secure enough in her friends, family, and fortune not to be ostracized for her behavior, we see more conventional characters who throw her behavior into relief. I haven't read Pam's upcoming The Edge of Impropriety yet, but from the excerpts and what I've heard about the story, the heroine is also hardly conventional and her past is sketched out in a way that lets the reader understand why and to see the consequences of her behavior in the society she lives in.
Thinking back to my recent posts on Courtesan Heroines and Libertine Heroes, I think that part of the appeal of both these character types is that they are, by definition, rule-breakers. Lord Vaughn, in Lauren's The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, is a wonderful example of a libertine hero who defies convention not just in his amorous intrigues but in his way of looking at the world. Which is part of the reason, I think, that he is perhaps the only man who can see Mary, the heroine, for who she really is, not the conventional society beauty she appears to be. As the story unfolds the reader, along with Mary, learns the events and forces that have shapes Vaughn into the man he is.
When I created Mélanie and Charles Fraser, I knew I was developing an unconventional pair of characters. They had to be rule-breakers for the stories I wanted to write about them to work. So I kept that in mind as I worked out their back stories. Charles and Mélanie both have a number of reasons for being unconventional—the people and books and ideas they were exposed to as children, young adult lives lived out against the chaos of the Peninsular War instead of in orderly drawing rooms and clubs, unexpected dangers that have forced them outside the roles they might have more naturally played in life (in Mélanie’s case, there is even more to this than the reader or Charles realizes at first).
By the time Secrets of a Lady begins, Mélanie and Charles are living a more sedate life in London, yet they are still known for being unconventional. Charles has some decidedly atypical (from our perspective we might say “modern”) views on men and women and marriage. At one point in Secrets he thinks:
[He] had always claimed that whose bed a woman had shared before her marriage was no more a man’s business than it was a wife’s business to ask the same about her husband. He recalled arguing as much in an after-dinner discussion fueled by plentiful port. ‘It’s all very well to try to outrage us with your bohemian sensibilities, Fraser,’ one of the other men present has said, staggering to the sideboard, where their host kept a chamber pot. ‘You’d feel differently if it was your own wife we were talking about.’
Charles knows his views are atypical. One of the reasons he is able to get away with expressing them is the protection of family and fortune. The grandson of a duke, connected (as Mélanie thinks at one point) “to half the British peerage”, he may cause some raised eyebrows, but he isn’t going to be barred from most Mayfair drawing rooms. And as his wife, Mélanie can get away with things that would spell ruin for Elizabeth Bennet.
Which doesn’t mean she can get away with everything. One of the tensions of Secrets (which will continue in subsequent books in the series) and is the that Mélanie knows she is admired and sought after by a society that would shun her if they the faintest idea of her origins. Mélanie’s rule breaking is usually born of the situation rather than a need to shock (such as Barbara Childe in Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army, one of my favorite convention-defying heroines). When I got to a scene in Beneath a Silent Moon where Mélanie and Charles are going to explore a secret passage in the middle of the night, it occurred to me that it would have been very foolish of her not to pack a shirt and breeches, knowing the sort of adventures she might be getting into. On the other hand it would never occur to me (or to Mélanie) for her to dress so for a morning ride in Hyde Park.
Not that I'd necessarily find it unbelievable for the heroine in a Regency-set novel to go for a morning ride in Hyde Park in a shirt and breeches. What I'd find unbelievable would be if no one commented if she did so.
Labels: Amanda Elyot, Charles and Mélanie Fraser, Emma Hamilton, Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen, Kalen Hughes, Lauren Willig, Pam Rosenthal, Pink Carnation, Scarlet Pimpernel, Tracy Grant, William Shakespeare