History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

26 January 2009

Dazed and Confused: Tales of Power and Privilege

Well, I was supposed to be blogging here last Friday. But somehow I got my blogging schedule confused.

We were traveling along the Oaxaca coast in Mexico (more about which later). But by Friday, we were en route to home, via a stop in LA.

Because when we booked the trip last fall, the American Airlines lady said the only way we could do it on frequent flyer miles was to stop over in LA.

Were we willing to do so, she asked?

Oh darn it
, I said, I guess this means we finally have to see the Getty Museum (which includes the Villa in Malibu, built in the style of a sumptuous home of classical Rome, to house J. Paul Getty's enormous classical art collection). ;-)

Drat, added Michael, and the Watts Towers too. :-)

Poor pitiful us, we agreed, we'll just have to stay somewhere with an ocean view, perhaps near the boardwalk in Venice. ;-)

(I hope the sprinkling of sunny images and little winky smiley emoticon things indicates just how pissed off we were to have to make this 2-day stopover. ;-) )

And in any case, I suppose that it's not so strange that while seeing wonders ancient and recent in LA that I lost bearings of my blogging schedule -- even as I was occasionally logging into this blog, and even as I was pondering (as is often the case, since she blogs before me, and since her posts are always rich and thought-provoking) Amanda Elyot's post about Great Britain's Prince Harry.

Of course I can't speak for Amanda's intentions. But the reason the topic fascinated me was that it reminded me of my own confusions and ambivalence about writing romance fiction -- which of course by general definition includes a certain amount of having-it-all fantasy, and in my specific case means that my main characters are often as not of the upper classes of Regency England (The clothes! the clubs! the estates, the carriages! The pleasures, in short, of privilege.)

And yet, by just about anybody's standards, I'm deeply egalitarian in my attitudes toward social, political, and economic matters. And apt to be particularly offended by upperclass twits (in England or -- not to mention names -- anywhere else).

So why do I write in a genre that centers itself upon the pleasures and pursuits of the Regency ton?

The answer, best as I can fathom it, is that I (or at least, god help me, my inner eleven-year-old) am genuinely enthralled by one of the romance genre's deepest messages and fantasies -- of a natural aristocracy of talent and virtue. Which phrase is an oxymoron if there ever was one, but in some ways I think that the fact that natural aristocracy even exists as a familiar string of words is something of a tipoff to what's going on here.

Despite myself almost, I seem to find something deeply satisfying in the belief in a kind of correspondence between outer rewards and inner virtues: the vision of a "true" nobility tested by adversity; of goodness of spirit adorned with the rewards of the earthly life.

The part of ourselves that likes to think of our selves this way, combined with the genuine anthropological complexity of upperclass entitlement seems like endlessly fertile ground for the sort of "fables of identity" many of us hoydens write. (I've borrowed the phrase from the literary critic Northrop Frye.)

Even given the strength of the mythology, though, I sometimes try to complicate matters in my work. To give the servants inner lives, for example; or in my most recent book, The Edge of Impropriety, to show that the very origins of our Regency fiction (the society novels of the Regency era itself) were often the work of strivers and arrivistes, who needed the myth of natural aristocracy more than anyone, and toward whom I try to be compassionate. (For a fascinating discussion of society novelist and consummate striver Benjamin Disraeli -- who makes a cameo appearance in Edge, check this out, from yesterday's New York Times Book Review).

And finally to note that during changing history (and in another venerable phrase) the last can sometimes come to be first. Which is part of the romantic mythology as well.

And how am I going to connect this to my Mexico trip? Only to offer some worthy writer a terrific romance venue -- the places along the Oaxaca coast, like Lake Chacahua, where slave ships were sometimes wrecked, and where survivers hid in the mangroves and founded communities that endure to this day. And where you just might have to stay, in a hut built of dried palm leaves, as we did, to do some (oh darn) research.

And I'd love to know from you hoydens and other writers how you deal with class inequity and moral value in your historical romances or historical writers.

And how you readers (who might also be writers) negotiate these complex mythologies and what you get from them.

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Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Thanks for the compliment, Pam. I was motivated to write that post because my research for my wip on notorious royal marriages has yielded a good deal of “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” and, having finally strung together a first draft of all the entries (which I now see makes the entire ms. hundreds of pages too long), I can see some history repeating itself more clearly.

As writers who tend to set our novels in Great Britain, no matter how much verisimilitude we endeavor to inject, particularly when it comes to issues of class, we rarely focus on some of the darker corners when it comes to the subject of "the other" in religion. That's been a large and ugly part of British history, but in "Romancelandia," as Kalen so winningly describes it, there's often little room for anything painted in a shade other than rose.

Those of us who, for whatever reason are "the other" ourselves, might be quicker to spot the dirt swept under the Axminster. You'll note that I took a a bit of flak from some of the commenters for daring to criticize the views of a member of the present royal family, as a possible “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” element of British history.

Yes, I love tea and scones; yes I was goo-goo-eyed inside Buckingham Palace where my ancestor Felix Mendelssohn played the piano for Victoria and Albert (I even got misty eyed over the instrument itself); and yes I love plummy accents, half-timbered architecture, and the city of Bath. But I also write historical nonfiction now as well as British-set fiction
and I am fascinated by the real, not merely the rosy, aspects of society.

And...speaking of Disraeli, there's a new biography of him that was well reviewed in yesterday's NY Times Book Review.

9:56 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Pam, I like the term "natural aristocracy."
I think you are one.

11:07 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

It's a fascinating conundrum, Pam. I got absorbed strongly egalitarian values from my mom, who also introduced me to Georgette Heyer and took me out for tea and with whom I started wrting Regency romances. Even our first book, which was very "London Season," had scenes set in the darker side of the Regency world. Exploring that darker side is something I've done more and more through the year. But there's no denying my central characters live a very elite privileged existence. Melanie in a sense confronts the same paradox in my books. She married Charles because she was working for a cause that opposed everything his world stands for, and yet she thinks in "Secrets of a Lady" that she's grown very comfortable ih the privileged surroundings she married into.

11:31 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

You're welcome and deserving of the compliments, Amanda, and thanks to you for yours to me, Lynna.

But I guess my point is that in our hearts (if we're lucky to have had good childhoods) we're all our own natural aristocrats; it's one of the ways we treat people we love. And romance is a way of revisiting that place in life.

The problem, I guess, is finding a balance with one's necessary critical build-a-better-world side...

...and yes, I certainly was thinking of how you grapple with these issues, Tracy.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I have to admit that I love reading both historical romance, where everything is peachy on the surface, and historical fiction which is a little grittier. But what I really enjoy are those authors who can give you both in a novel. The hero who has pulled himself up the bootstraps. The heroine who is forced to become a governess because her family is poor. One of my favorite miniseries is North and South, based on the Elizabeth Gaskill novel. While not a romance per se, you get both a fascinating romance and the class differences and grittiness of life in a northern mill town.

Since I'm writing non-fiction at the moment, I'm often forced to confront the choices my Scandalous Women make. And I can't judge them, because it was a different time.

9:40 AM  
Blogger Linda Banche said...

I understand the ambivalence. I love Regencies. They speak to me, but I can't quite say why. I wouldn't want to live in the era with all its restrictions on women, even rich ones. Yet, I don't like contemporaries at all. I dislike most the contemporaries that display the lifestyles of the rich and famous, but that's exactly what most Regencies are. Do I like the Regency because the time is 200 years in the past and we can romanticize the era? Authors who don't create the period feel really irritate me.

I find myself tending to Regencies that deal with more ordinary people. I'm getting really tired of reading about the plethora of dukes. Maybe I just read too many Regencies and I'm getting jaded. But I haven't found anything else I like

11:51 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I dislike most the contemporaries that display the lifestyles of the rich and famous, but that's exactly what most Regencies are.

Yes, Linda, that's my situation too.

Perhaps Regencies get away with more because of their lineage back to Jane Austen, whose wit could cut the rich and famous down to size, even as she lets us imagine the wittiest of girls getting Mr. Darcy in the end.

1:45 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

North and South, you know, Elizabeth, was Mrs. Gaskell's attempt to placate her critics for her far more angry and incendiary industrial novel Mary Barton, which I haven't re-read for years, but would like to.

I absolutely love Wives and Daughters, though, and Cranford -- which I must get from Netflix.

1:48 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Both Cranford and Wives and Daughters are wonderfully done, Pam. Well worth the rental.

6:13 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

But people should also read Cranford and Wives and Daughters if they haven't, Amanda.

I really recommend them both as novels (or, in Cranford's case, as a set of linked short stories (one of my favorite genres anyway). The conflicted, self-destructive, self-conscious Cynthia in Wives and Daughters is one of my favorite 19th century heroines, even if she's a secondary character -- and a bit of a model for my Fannie Grandin in The Slightest Provocation. And my country assembly scene in TSP owes more than a little to Mrs. Gaskell's as well. What a smart woman she was! (I can imagine knowing her and talking to her -- something I can't imagine about her friend Charlotte Bronte.)

6:30 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I agree, Pam. A miniseries, no matter how well adapted, is no substitute for the original novel.

6:55 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

And did I miss something, Amanda? Is Felix Mendelssohn really your ancestor? (Going all googly-eyed myself)

8:00 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Yes, indeed -- through my maternal grandmother's side of the family. I get an excited frisson every time I hear a piece of his music. He also started a musical scholarship after he became celebrated and the first recipient was Arthur Sullivan. I knew there was a reason I liked Sir Arthur so much!

The story that the Buckingham Palace tour guide told us about Mendelssohn's command performance for Victoria and Albert went like this: The queen asked the composer if she might sit down to the instrument herself and play her favorite Mendelssohn composition. Of course he assented immediately. So Victoria sat down to play and the piece she so favored turned out to have actually been written by Felix's sister Fanny. Their father had forbidden her to have a public professional music career -- so Felix had some of her compositions published in a volume with his own (all under his name, of course).

11:33 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Lovely story!

1:18 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

There's definitely a book there, Amanda...:-).

2:46 PM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

I can't help but be drawn to the more realistic slices of history. Presently, I find myself critiquing issues of class, sex, race, imperialism and religion in my WIPs to the point where I am utterly unable to write frothy romps. I start off with a germ of a plot (sometimes based on a popular trope, sometimes not), but I never get a "feel" for the story until the setting snaps into place. Then the characters and their motivations and their conflict burst out of the box. Sometimes I'm afraid I get a little too "historical fiction" for the romance genre. ^.^

1:24 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I know what you mean, Evangeline. I painted myself into a corner trying to write a book with Matthew Bakewell (Mary's spurned suitor, the Manchester manufacturer, from The Slightest Provocation) as hero. But North and South notwithstanding, I couldn't write a book set in Peterloo-era Manchester. Too awful, the working conditions.

2:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


10:52 AM  
Anonymous viagra online said...

This trip was the last one was my great-grandmother died a month before I read it and now I came to my mind how much you like Oaxaca and it´s surroundings, must have a unique experience and fun too!

10:59 AM  

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