The Evolution of the Rake
This summer I had the fun of serving as an historical production adviser on Porchlight Theatre's production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. This past weekend was closing weekend, and I saw the show twice, two last chances to savor the richness of the story and this wonderful production. In many ways elements of the play (based on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's scandalous epistolary novel of the same name published in the 1780s in the lead up to the French Revolution, which gives this post a Bastille Day tie in) are not unfamiliar to historical romance. In fact, watching the play opening weekend, it occurred to me that I was seeing the prototype of the current historical romance hero. A rake sets out to seduce a beautiful, virtuous woman. He eventually wins her, but finds he has become emotionally entangled with her himself.
It sounds not unlike the plot of Georgette Heyer's Venetia. Save that in the case of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, despite falling in love with the woman he pursues, the rake gives her up to win a game of seduction with his ex-mistress whom he is also pursuing and with whom he also has complex emotional ties. And while he pursues the virtuous Madame de Tourvel, the rakish Vicomte de Valmont is also seducing and having an affair with the fifteen-year-old daughter of another ex-lover. (As my friend Penny Williamson pointed out when we saw the play, the text leaves open the possibility that Valmont is Cécile's father). If Valmont does in the end realize that his life is worth nothing without Madame de Tourvel, it's only after he's cruelly tossed her aside. He dies in a duel. She dies in a convent. Not exactly the stuff of today's romance novels.
All of which got to me to pondering when the rake evolved into a hero. To my knowledge, the classic rake first makes his appearance in literature in the Restoration era. Millamant in Congreve's The Way of the World and Charles Surface in Sheridan's School for Scandal both have rakish pasts, but they don't indulge in rakish behavior in the course of their respective stories. The more typical literary rake seems to be Valmont or Lovelace from Richardson's Clarissa, who cross lines no romance hero could. If they ultimately come to regret their behavior, it's only after they've done far too much damage to achieve a happy ending.
On the opera stage at much the same era, Don Giovanni boasted of his conquests and was dragged down to hell, unrepentant (and immune to love) until the end. Count Almaviva, of the Beaumarchais trilogy and the Mozart and Rossini operas, not only remains a rake after his marriage to the girl he supposedly adored, he is distinctly less intelligent than his valet Figaro (which, at least to me, makes him distinctly less sexy). A few decades later, Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, rather than seducing the innocent young girl who falls in love with him, callously spurns her. He then flirts with her sister, leading his friend, the sister's fiancé, to challenge him to a duel, in which Onegin kills his friend. Years later, Onegin sees Tatiana, the girl he spurned, now a beautiful and very married woman. He decides he wants her, only to be spurned himself.
What degree of sexual experience Jane Austen's heroes possess remains open to question, but none of them are rakes. The rakes in her novels, Willoughby and Wickham, are hardly figures of romance. They may not be as devious as Valmont, but they are equally oblivious to the damage they may do. The early Victorian era offers Charlotte Bronte's Mr. Rochester, who has an acknowledged libertine past. Rochester, of course, always intends to marry Jane Eyre not seduce her. Except that he's already married, so morally (particularly given Victorian morals) the effect is the same. Unlike Valmont and Lovelace, however, he doesn't plan to seduce and abandon Jane. Which perhaps is why Rochester achieves a happy ending. He's also a much more romantic figure than his literary forebears.
Many of Georgette Heyer's heroes are rakes, though one of her earliest and most classic rakish heroes, These Old Shades's Justin Alastair, Duke of Avon, was actually the villain (under a different name) of her first book, The Black Moth. Today's romantic heroes have libertine pasts more often than not. And at times they, like Valmont, set out coldly to seduce the heroine, only to be caught by love to their own surprise. But they don't wreak as much destruction and they manage to live happily ever after. In some ways the evolution of the rake is similar to that of vampire characters. From destructive (if sexy) villain to romantic hero.
What are some of your favorite literary rakes? Do you prefer the rakes of today's romances who are able to live happily ever after or the less idealized ones like Valmont? Could Valmont or Lovelace be a romance hero and have a happily ever after? Why or why not?