History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

02 September 2009

Betrayal by Any Other Name

Betrayal has such a black-and-white sound, doesn’t it? But like most things, it isn’t anything of the sort. Betrayal of a country, an ideal, a lover, a spouse, a friend. It’s often impossible to be loyal to all. Which loyalty comes first?

Raoul says this to Mélanie in their scene in the library late in Secrets of a Lady/Daughter of the Game. I found myself mulling over these words while driving home from a trip to the grocery store (I do a lot of my best writing thinking in the car). So many of my books deal with betrayal in one form or another. It’s at the heart of four of my mom’s and my Anthea Malcolm Regencies (Frivolous Pretence, A Touch of Scandal, An Improper Proposal, A Sensible Match) and of all four of my linked historical romances, starting with Dark Angel which I wrote with my mom as Anna Grant and continuing with Shadows of the Heart, SLinkhores of Desire, and Rightfully His. It’s the core issue of the Charles & Mélanie series. I can’t imagine writing a book about Charles and Mel that didn’t deal with some facet of betrayal.

In a 2003 ARR interview, Rachel Potter asked me about the fact that many of my books have personal betrayal as a theme. It was something I hadn’t really thought about at the time. Thinking it over, I replied, “Personal betrayal goes to the core of what hurts most, what creates the bleakest dark moment, the deepest hurdle to overcome. That’s the stuff of good drama. Trust, I think, is essential to love, so a betrayal of trust is one of the most difficult challenges a love affair can face. Betrayal raises all sorts of interesting moral and ethical questions. “

I’m particularly intrigued by the moral and ethical dilemmas of characters caught between competing loyalties, as Raoul describes. That’s what I love about Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson books (which, pretty obviously, were one of the inspirations for the Charles & Mélanie books). There’s a wonderful scene in the television adaptation of Game, Set & Match (which I wish would be released on DVD) where a number of the characters (most involved in intelligence work in one way or another) are a dinner party and the talk turns to betrayal. They are discussing it in the personal, romantic sense, but the political overtones are there as well. It’s a fabulous scene, rich in subtext.

Themes of betrayal and competing loyalties go hand and hand with stories about spies. Characters in spy stories are always caught in ethical dilemmas, torn between competing loyalties (every episode of MI-5/Spooks seems to contain an ethical dilemma). Tom Stoppard’s wonderful play about spies, Hapgood, is all about betrayal. But so is another of my favorite plays of his, The Real Thing, which is about marriage, with nary a spy in sight.

The pull between loyalty to a loved one and loyalty to a cause is summed up in Richard Lovelace’s I could not love thee, dear, so much, Lov’d I not honor more, which Mélanie quotes to Charles toward the end of Secrets. It’s a deceptively simple quote, which can seem trite (Mel, in fact, is accusing Charles of dismissing her betrayal too lightly when she brings it up). And yet it says a lot about the tension between love and loyalty or between two competing loyalties. Of course, how one defines “honor,” (a word Charles is inclined to invoke and Mel is inclined to disparage) has a lot to do with which loyalty one puts first. As Raoul is pointing out to Mélanie, there’s often no easy, clean, “honorable” answer.

Do you like stories about betrayal? Why or why not? Any favorites to recommend? Do you find yourself noticing common themes within a writer’s work? Writers, are you aware of themes you return to again and again, or are you sometimes startled when someone points them out to you (as I was when Rachel interview me)?

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Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

You've really got me thinking and musing, Tracy; excellent post! I've been thinking about Lord Nelson who put duty to king and country above all, but was unfaithful to his wife Fanny, on more than one occasion. And by the time he fell in love with Emma Hamilton, his soul mate and grand passion, he was really rather arrogant in the way he dealt with Fanny (who I never much liked because she was a sniveller who didn't "get" her husband at all -- but still...). His actions bring the concept of betrayal into full relief; he hubristically believed that his public life and private life could be separate things, or that his public heroism (and it is true that England had no greater hero of the era than he, or had had a hero of his caliber for several previous centuries, if ever) should cancel out whatever personal betrayals he might have committed.

That behavior seems endemic to the character of the leader (politician, sovereign or other royal, Pope) who assumes that "the people" should be grateful for his noble actions in the public sphere -- brave or decisive or positive actions that he believes should cancel out his less than stellar conduct, or give him a "pass" when it comes to the behavior he exercises in his private life.

As far as writers' tropes go, I find myself intrigued by what I call "the cult of celebrity" and that is reflected in several of my novels, including my historical fiction (Emma Hamilton, Lord Nelson, and Mary Robinson were certainly celebrities of their day), as well as in the nonfiction I write about royals. Contemporary society refers to "Hollywood royalty" or the Kennedy family as "American royalty" and we do confer a certain amount of noblesse oblige on the rich and famous, as if their bank account or televised image or ERA gives them the right to behave differently and be held to different standards than the rest of us. I have strong feelings that we shouldn't give them a "pass" because of their celebrity, and yet we remain utterly enthralled by their lives. It's that dichotomy I love to explore and keep returning to. I write about royals behaving badly -- and yet my publisher buys them because they know that lots of people want to read about their lives!

1:28 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for the great comments, Amanda! Nelson is a wonderful example of competing loyalties, and how someone may be intensely loyal in one part of their life and yet commit betrayals in another. (One reason why the personal lives of politicians don't concern me when it comes to voting for the person who I think is the most effective advocate for the things I believe in).

And that's so true about the "cult of celebrity"--you can see it in the Regency with the fascination with royalty and people like Byron and his very public love affair with Caroline Lamb and you can see it today.

2:24 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Hi Tracy. I just posted an interview with Hallie Rubenhold, the author of The Lady in Red which involves betrayal. Lady Worsley and George Bisset elope, and betray her husband Sir Richard, George having been a good friend. But Sir Richard betrays Lady Worsley by being complicit in her adultery, until the affair is exposed. Sir Richard pretty much pimped her out to his friends, apparently he was more of a voyeur than a lover. It was interesting to see how they both used the media to try and further their aims. I called them an 18th century Jon and Kate Gosselin.

5:33 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That's fascinating, Elizabeth! Lots of layers of betrayal. And I think the betrayals that cut deepest usually involve those closest to you--spouses, lovers, friends, family.

Off to read the interview...

6:02 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Tracy, I love the insight you have into your own work. For me the issue in my romances is always trust. But the need to learn to trust is not based on betrayal of the loved but some aspect of their past that has made them skeptical.

The best example is Charlotte in TRAITOR'S KISS who married with stars in her eyes and was in a very fundamental way betrayed, so that all future relationships were tainted by her husband's understanding of marriage.

I know exactly where this comes from -- I cannot imagine forgiving someone who has betrayed me that profoundly, so for me to write convincingly, the betrayal cannot stem from my hero and heroine's relationship but some betrayal that preceded it.

Yes, I do notice themes in writer's work -- especially my critique partners whose work I read so closely. Lavinia Kent's heroines are always on the edge of society, definitely free thinkers in our 21st century parlance. Her first book A TALENT FOR SIN is a good example.

I also noticed long ago that Carla Kelly does not actually like the social world of the Regency and all her characters are on the fringe for some reason -- and at the end of the book they generally leave England for someplace more open minded.

Diane Gaston's work favors the dark side of Regency life and the way love triumphs over the challenges of prostitution and a dozen other aspects of 19th century life that are less than lovely.

I'm not sure if this is what you mean in terms of theme but they are obviously elements of interest to the writers mentioned as they show up again and again.

6:33 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That's exactly what I meant by common themes, Mary. I think it's fascinating how writers will return to the same subject matter and issues, often examining them from different angles.

Trust and betrayal are in many ways inextricably intertwined, because as you point out betrayal makes it difficult to trust, even if the person one of trying to trust is not the person behind the betrayal. My mom and I were at an RWA workshop when we were starting our first historical romance, "Dark Angel." Everyone at the workshop was asked to write down the theme of their current WIP. One of us wrote down "loyalty" and the other wrote "betrayal" (I can't remember which of us wrote which. Which in an odd way was saying the same thing.

7:45 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

This is a very interesting discussion, and in some ways perhaps consonant with stuff I'm banging my head against on my blog, about innocence and experience, romance and redemption.

Perhaps my obsession is to try to maintain the romance cosmology of world enough and time to get it right after first getting it wrong. But I like to do that in a way that's as secular, ironic, and anti-metaphysical as possible.

11:24 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I forgot to check out your blog on Friday, Pam--great post and discussion. I'll come back and post after I think the topic through a bit. And your blog led me to Janet's Romance B(u)y the Book interview and discussion about Bad Girl Heroines, which is also fascinating. I blogged about Bad Girl Heroines myself a couple of weeks ago (in turn inspired by a blog and discussion on AAR).

12:18 AM  

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