History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

22 February 2010

Improper Relations? Or just good friends?

I'm writing today about my new release Improper Relations and early nineteenth century attitudes toward female friendship.

Friendships between women in the Georgian era were often expressed in passionate language in frequent letters; it was the age of feeling, of sensibility. It was also an age of advancing female literacy and leisure among the middle classes, and the absence of men--whether it was to prizefights or war--led women to seek like-minded companionship.

The Ladies of Llangollen are probably the most notorious example of passionate female friendship. In 1778, Lady Eleanor Butler and the Hon. Sarah Ponsonby eloped to live together for over fifty years of devoted bliss, enjoying literature, gardening, and a gorgeous house (which they decorated in Gothic splendor) in Llangollen, Wales. This charming portrait is of their cats in 1809 by artist Maria Taylor. They became celebrities who were visited by the likes of Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Wellington and Lady Caroline Lamb.

As their names suggest, they were members of the Irish aristocracy, and both women had upset their families by claiming they would never marry. Eventually they were reconciled with their families and, following interest from Princess Charlotte, received a royal pension.

So I find it extraordinary that Austen's view of female friendship is so negative. Friendship is a sometime thing and not always sincere; one of the participants at least may have an ulterior motive, despite appearances.
The progress of the friendship between Catherine and Isabella was quick as its beginning had been warm, and they passed so rapidly through every gradation of increasing tenderness that there was shortly no fresh proof of it to be given to their friends or themselves. They called each other by their Christian name, were always arm in arm when they walked, pinned up each other’s train for the dance, and were not to be divided in the set; and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together.
In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor befriends Lucy Steele to discover the nature of her engagement to Edward, and the two perform a complicate dance of suspicion and revelation. Do you really think Elizabeth Bennett will maintain her friendship with Charlotte Lucas; or rather, do you think Mrs. Darcy and Mrs. Collins will write frequent, warm letters to each other?

For Austen, true intimacy and love is between sisters, not friends.

My book, Improper Relations, which came out last week from Little Black Dress, is about a friendship between two women and the conflict caused when their loyalties to each other are challenged by new loyalties to their respective husbands. Yes, it's a romance (splutter, it has an arranged marriage and a duel! A wedding night!). I made the mistake of telling some women at a conference a few months ago that my next book was about relationships between women because they were so much more interesting and brought the table to an embarrassed silence.

Here's an excerpt, as recounted by the hero:
[Charlotte says] “She is my friend. My best friend. She knows me better than anyone in the world. When she fell in love I was lonely. I felt I had lost her and part of myself, too.”

I am silent. I have friends; I have lost friends, too, an inevitable consequence of the times in which we live and my former profession. But I have never felt incomplete without anyone—or rather, until now, I have never felt the possibility that I could feel this way. For I realize fully now what Charlotte means to me, my other half, my love, the one whom I can turn to and who knows my secret self. It has taken her confession of love for another to make me realize how deeply I love my wife, an extraordinary business to be sure.
Do you agree with my assessment of Austen's view of female friendships? Does it trouble you that Lizzie Bennett doesn't grieve for the loss of her friend? Prove me wrong, please!

I'll give a signed copy of my new book to a random commenter. Meanwhile, do visit my site and find the links to soundbites from my Regency chicklit books on the home page, enter the contest and read another excerpt from Improper Relations.

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Blogger Kirsten said...

I feel that the friendship between Charlotte and Lizzie already started to crack when Charlotte married Mr. Collins. Lizzie visits the "happy" couple and sees that Charlotte follows her husbands lead. Mostly Lady Caherine's! This makes clear to her how very different she and her friend are. Not having much in common often leads to drifting apart.
Lizzie's life is turned upside down and so many things happen. She trust and falls back onto her sister. As Mrs. Darcy I don't think she will be visiting Charlotte much. Perhaps they will write but I think the fact that her sister is much more available & being of the same "class" married to Bingley will lead to further seperation between the (former) friends.
It would be nice to be wrong though!

Perhaps the fact that Jane Austen herself and her sister were so very close and that she didn't have a real female friend so trusted as Cassandra shines through in her work.

5:39 AM  
Blogger MsHellion said...

I agree with Kirsten. I think Austen was influenced by the fact she didn't have a close real female friend; her "friendship" in life was her sister. I think a sister could also be a best friend. And I think if you didn't have a sister, you could find one in the real world, who you wish had been a sister.

And I totally agree with Charlotte in the excerpt. I had a friend who fell in love (and fell off the face of the earth)--and it was like being abandoned. And I felt I not only lost her but myself too.

This sounds like an extraordinary book.

7:46 AM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Thanks for your responses, Karen and MsHellion. I think you're right about Austen's major female relationship being with her sister. I think it's hard for the modern mind to understand that sort of attachment to family members. To me, that sounds stifling.

And who do you go to complain about your sister?!

8:29 AM  
Blogger Louise Fury said...

I never thought about Austen's view of female friendships until I read this post and now I can think of nothing else. You are correct, she really doesn't value them for their worth. When my friends married I cried for the loss and when I married I cried for the loss. To this day I look forward to RWA conferences so I can have sleepovers with my friends. Granted I love my husband, but there is only so much of a man's company you can take. 365 days a year seems a bit much. I need a few days for girl company and gossip.
Now about this wonderful book you have written, here is my sob story/plea for a copy.

I am desperate to win a copy of this book. I had the pleasure of meeting you (Janet) at the RWA NJ conference and somehow the crowd swarmed in ahead of me and by the time I got to you, your lovely books had found happy homes.

Then imagine my horror when I could not find them in NYC! I looked everywhere, but did not find one LITTLE BLACK DRESS book! Then, while I was visiting my hometown of Cape Town, South Africa, I spotted your book A Most Lamentable Comedy, at a small bookstore in a HUGE mall. I paid an outrageous amount (books there are crazy expensive) and was deliriously happy for the rest of the trip. I laughed till my stomach ached.
Now I see you have another book out and I am salivating at the thought of getting hold of it.

Please don't make me go all the way to Cape Town to get it. Although I will be making another trip home in December, I am rather desperate to read it now.

9:08 AM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Oh, Louise! bookdepository.com --free shipping worldwide. My spiritual home and now yours. LBD doesn't have US distribution, more's the pity.

I love having sleepovers at conferences too. I usually room with Pam Rosenthal, who's extraordinarily tolerant of my ability to create a slum of a lovely hotel room within minutes of arrival.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Nicola Cornick said...

This is a fascinating topic, Janet, and I think your book has an equally fascinating theme. Can't wait to get my hands on it. My first reaction was "of course Jane Austen values female friendship!" I felt a need to defend Lizzie Bennett for her sincerity towards her friends as opposed to characters such as Mary Crawford or Isabella Thorpe who had ulterior motives for appearing friendly. I think this is because Lizzie as a person seems so much more genuine and sincere than some of Jane Austen's other female characters. But then I thought about Lizzie's deteriorating relationship with Charlotte and had to adjust my opinion, which made me feel rather sad. Perhaps Mrs Darcy and Mrs Collins will grow ever further apart.

There's no doubting Jane Austen's attachment to Cassandra. Did she realy have no close female friends though? I'm not enough of an Austen expert to know. Or perhaps she had had a bad experience in her youth when someone she considered a friend betrayed her trust? It would be fascinating to know.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Nicola, I know Austen was friends with the sisters of Harris Bigg-Withers, to whom she was engaged for about 24 hours before she changed her mind. I'm wondering if fallout from that broken engagement caused some coldness between them.

On the other hand, I'm not sure, and I don't know if anyone can tell, exactly how deep a friendship it was. We know they went to events such as assemblies together and that Jane stayed at their house.

Of course, her sharp tongue could have alienated possible friends.

10:04 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Janet, thanks so much for reminding me about bookdepository.com. I just ordered this (and your last one, which I missed!).

I loved The Rules of Gentility, and can't wait to have these too!!!

And yes, I’ve always noticed that Austen seems to portray sisterly affection as the only true friendship. For those of us have no sisters, this can seem a bit alien.

10:45 AM  
Blogger Louise Fury said...

Oh wow, I am going to head over to the site now. How fabulous and I didn't even know about it till now. Thank you.

11:01 AM  
Blogger MsHellion said...

Easy--you go to your OTHER sister to complain about your infuriating sister. They had all sorts of siblings then. There would have been someone--a sister, a cousin, someone.

But yes, to the modern mind, I think there was too much family. *LOL* Can't beat time with my girlfriends. It's not the same with sisters.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

I think it's a very individual thing. I've definitely noticed Austen's emphasis on sibling bonds, not so much at the expense of friendship but because my brothers were all teenagers when I was born and therefore feel more like uncles than brothers in many ways!

Anyway, I can sort of relate to Jane Austen's experience of female friendship, since my chief early experience of it wasn't all that different from poor Catherine's! I didn't have close female friends again till I was 22 or 23, and I've always had as many or more men friends as women. And now that I look at what I write, I see a lot of girls with no sisters but several brothers, women with male best friends they may or may not fall in love with eventually, etc. My last two manuscripts are fantasy instead of romance and focus heavily on male friendship, but I haven't balanced that out with female friendships. I'll have to think about that.

12:28 PM  
Anonymous Tinky said...

I'm with Louise; I hadn't thought about Austen's views on female friendsihp before and will have to ponder it a bit. I do agree that, given societal norms at the time, it was easier to have a best friend who was your sister than someone else--I mean, you couldn't pay unlimited calls on people, you certainly couldn't talk on the phone, if you weren't in the city it took a while to get to your friends, etc........

Anyway, excellent point--and I look forward to reading the new book!

1:00 PM  
Blogger Rose Lerner said...

I have actually been thinking about this recently! Sorry if this comment gets too long and geeky...

In my reading, it's not so much that Jane Austen doesn't value female friendship (after all, Catherine forms a "true" friendship later in the book with Miss Tilney) as that she doesn't value ANY relationship that's based on emotion and instinctive liking, rather than mutual esteem, shared values, and a knowledge of each other's character. She's making fun of Catherine for becoming best friends with Isabella so QUICKLY. I kind of see it as similar to how she criticizes Elizabeth for her attraction to Wickham, or Marianne for falling in love with Willoughby.

Plus, Jane Austen was a remarkably judgmental person. (And I say this as someone who ADORES her books!) I can hardly think of ANY close relationships that are portrayed really positively in her books (except, as you point out, the ones between sisters, but I've always assumed that was more a blind spot because of her own closeness to her sister than an intentional message). Even though her books are romances, the only established marriage I can think of that's shown as a positive partnership of the kind her heroines want is Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner. (Admittedly I haven't read Emma in a long time so maybe there's one in there.)

If you like litcrit, I recently read a really interesting book that tries to situate Jane Austen in the political/literary context of the time. It basically argues that her rationality-and-responsibility worldview was, at the time, seen to conflict directly with the Romantic, individualistic ideals that "passionate friendship" was part of. It's called Jane Austen and the War of Ideas by Marilyn Butler. It made a lot of sense to me, even though I think it sometimes takes an overly black-and-white position. (The section on Jane Austen's intertextual practices and their political meaning in Women's Reading in Britain, 1750-1835: A Dangerous Recreation by Jacqueline Pearson balanced things out a bit for me.)

And please put me in for a book--I loved A Most Lamentable Comedy and this one sounds just as awesome!

3:15 PM  
Anonymous RachieG said...

I'm an only child....no sisters, no brothers. All I have in my world are close friendships and they matter the world to me.

So, I completely agree with you, I feel friendships are incredibly important. It does bother me she doesn't feel sorrow over the loss of her friend.

rachie2004 @ yahoo (d0t) com

3:34 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Janet, I will read anything you write, even if it's a shopping list on the back of a bar napkin.

Female friendships are always a subject of fascination to me. I researched the lives of James II's daughters for ROYAL AFFAIRS and both Mary and Anne had extremely close female friends who some historians believe were their lovers, judging from the passionate and feverish tone of the Princesses' correspondence with their respective confidantes.

4:03 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I tend to agree that Jane Austen saw sisterly friendships as the only true friendships, perhaps because she didn't think two people could truly know one another unless they grew up together and lived in the same house. For all the things I've read about her social life I think she lead a somewhat insular life.

And what an amazing insight for your newest to explore. I had friends who married and it almost felt like a death. I was happy for them and they were happy for me when I married, but the relationship was never the same. And I think in a real friendship, just as in a real marriage when the other person is no longer completely available the person who leaves takes a bit of you with them.

My critique partner and I have never met. We talk online and on the phone every day. That is not an exaggeration. Over the past five years we have become best friends. We call each other the sisters of our hearts. I feel extremely fortunate to have her in my life.

But, I feel that way about many of my writer friends. We share a common goal in many ways and a common journey. There is something wonderful about being able to discuss the highs and lows and twists and turns of this journey with women who have been there and are there.

4:46 PM  
Blogger Miranda Neville said...

Rose Lerner has just made the point I was going to - about Jane Austen's suspicion of any sudden relationship. And I think Elizabeth wants to maintain her friendship with Charlotte, but having Mr. Collins to visit Pemberley may be more than they can stand. Charlotte is very clever and practical and will put up with a strictly epistolary friendship in exchange for a little gentle patronage from Mr. D. She will never be pushy about it.

I am watching the 1936 film of As You Like It. Rosalind has a peculiar German accent but Olivier as Orlando could cut glass with his cheek bones. The expression of friendship by Celia to Rosalind is couched in the kind of passionate terms you describe.

Can't wait for Book Dep. to deliver your book.

4:47 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Even though her books are romances, the only established marriage I can think of that's shown as a positive partnership of the kind her heroines want is Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner. (Admittedly I haven't read Emma in a long time so maybe there's one in there.)

Emma's governess and her husband are shown as happy and affectionate. And Emma and she are also shown as friends.

I think it's implied in Sense and Sensibility that the girls' mother and father were happy before his death.

And in Persuasion the Musgoves appear happy and the Admiral and Mrs. Croft have the happiest marriage imaginable.

So there are few other examples, LOL!

5:25 PM  
Anonymous Janet Mullany said...

Louise, did you check out the world map where you can watch people buy books in real time on bookdepository.com? It's one of my favorite parts of the site.

Kalen, thanks for buying my books!

MsHellion, it's hard to imagine what life was like for the Austen sisters--they knew everyone, everyone knew them; it was all family, all the time!

Hi Susan, I hate to think of you being entangled with an Isabella (after one of the big brothers?).

Tinky, if you could afford them, you would have used your footmen as human texting devices!

Rose, you make some great points--thanks for the long geekiness. And yes, you're right--Austen had high standards and I think her mix of being both judgmental AND snarky must have made people wary of her. You just knew that she'd be saying devastating things to Cassandra about your gown after the party if not during it... It's alarming too how few marriages are presented as being happy. Once Mr. and Mrs. Bennett may have been passionately in love and one can only assume it was one of those unreliable relationships based on instinct and emotion (lust, anyone?). I find the Gardiners rather lackluster, but writing about a happy marriage is hard--although as Kalen says, Admiral Croft and his lady are the rare exceptions. And I think they're meant to be.

Leslie, as soon as my agent has hammered out the fine points of the movie rights, I shall announce the sale (by auction, of course) of my shopping lists.

Rachie, it bothers me too that Lizzie has little regret for the loss of her friendship with Charlotte but I wonder if Austen meant us to admire Lizzie for finally seeing her friend for what she really was? Note there's not much room for tolerance in this worldview. I think I agree with Miranda, that the relationship would have been the equivalent of the Christmas card with the annual boastful family letter. Miranda, I've never seen that movie, in fact I didn't even know it existed. What a treat (is it? Rosalind isn't played by Marlene Dietrich, surely. Check and see whether she's wearing black stockings and garters).

Hi Louise, thanks for coming by!

7:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can understand Lizzie relationships with her friends. I think we are a bit alike. We make friends and they are good friends, but not the close, tell everything, being inseparable type of friendships many "girls" have. We don't write long gushy letters. May not see each other for a long time, but when we do, it is like we have never been apart. Some of us are just not gushy personalities. It is the self-contained, oldest child thing. We may feel deeply, but we don't show it. We learn early to accept things as they are and move on.

8:59 PM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

No, the Isabella type wasn't after one of my brothers--by the time we were old enough to notice boys, 2 of the 3 were married with kids, and the other lived on the other side of the country. I did once have a high school friend say my oldest brother was cute, and I was all, "Oh my GAWD, aside from being my brother he's over THIRTY and he has a BABY."

11:14 PM  
Blogger Kim in Hawaii said...

Thank you, Janet, for an a thought provoking post. I never considered how Jane Austen portrayed friends vs. sister. Perhaps Jane wanted to focus her readers on the importance of family relations as the heroine prepared for marriage and her own family?

I did not have a sister growing up. In college, I enjoyed the “sisterhood” of a sorority. After graduation, I entered the “sisterhood” of female officers serving in the Air Force. Once married, I joined the “sisterhood” of military spouses. The “military spouse sisterhood” provides the support that a distant family cannot provide to meet the challenges of military life – frequent moves, family separation, lost furniture, new schools, etc – challenges that Jane Austen could not imagine. But these challenges have their rewards – I have lived in Europe and I now live in Hawaii!

1:40 AM  
Blogger Miranda Neville said...

Marlene Dietrich, Janet? I wish! Elizabeth Bergner whom I now learn was married to the director. Unbearably perky and almost unwatchable.

6:02 AM  
Blogger Lois said...

I still can't see when I reread the book or even watch any version of P&P that she looses the friendship with Charlotte. Yes, it's incredibly obvious that her greatest friendship is with her sister, and from there we probably can infer that Lizzie didn't always share the same stuff with Charlotte as she did with Jane. But I really figure that it's more that she might have been disappointed in the marriage with Mr Collins, but at the same time, Lizzie did know from Charlotte's own words how she felt about marriage. So for me, unless I am simply missing something incredible crucial every single time I go for P&P, I just don't see it as everyone else. I could be an idiot you know. LOL


1:04 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I still can't see when I reread the book or even watch any version of P&P that she looses the friendship with Charlotte.

At the end of the book no mention is made of Charlotte or Mr. Collins.

Everyone else who’s been important to the story and/or to Lizzy get at least a sentence or two. If Austen had wanted to show Lizzy and Charlotte's enduring friendship, surely this would have been the place for that?

1:58 PM  
Blogger Rose Lerner said...

Oh, I had completely forgotten the Crofts! I love them.

And Miranda--I've seen that version of "As You Like It"! Laurence Olivier is BEAUTIFUL in it, isn't he? (Have you seen...um...I want to say "Fire Over England"? But maybe that was a different early Olivier movie. I'm thinking of the one where he's an English spy on the Spanish under Elizabeth and there's some stuff with the Armada...) I agree, though, that Rosalind was pretty unwatchable. If she was married to the director that explains a LOT.

4:32 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post, Janet! I'm really looking forward to your book, which sounds wonderful. I always assumed Elizabeth and Charlotte would continue friends, but now I wonder how much of that is me reading my own thoughts into the story. I do agree with Rose about Austen in general not valuing relationships that are based on emotional and instinct rather than esteem and rational thought. I've always thought it was an interesting choice that she gave Elizabeth a close friend even though Lizzy has a sister who is, in effect, her best friend. So many heroines, if they have friends at all, have one at the most, be it sister, cousin, neighbor, etc...

10:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always feel sad for Lizzie when Charlotte decides to marry Mr. Collins, and my impression has always been that Lizzie is genuinely sad, because face it--it is MR. COLLINS. I call staying with Mr. Collins for any length of time a true act of friendship!

7:29 AM  
Anonymous Ingrid said...

I'm very late to the party, but nobody mentions the relationships Anne Eliot has with her sisters. They are both different, but both bad. And Elizabeth Bennet loves and trusts Jane, but the same cannot be said of Mary, Kitty and Lydia. So it's only one out of four sisters that makes the grade for Lizzy.
Personally, I've always admired Charlotte Lucas. She's the truly rational one. She looks the truth straight in the face: her age, her looks and her financial expectations, and then she makes her bed and lies in it uncomplainingly. She is mistress of her own house and can look forward to being mistress of Longbourn, she will have children of her own to raise and she carefully manages both her husband and Lady Catherine. She's a pragmatic woman who grabs the best career opportunity available to her. Two hundred years later she could have been prime minister or head of a multinational company, whatever she wanted to be. Elizabeth and Jane are lucky, but Charlotte makes her own luck.

3:22 AM  

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