History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

14 July 2010

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?

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Blogger Laura Vivanco said...

You've mentioned Richardson's Clarissa, but what about his Pamela? Mr. B. is a rake who gets reformed, and he dates from 1740. Augusta Jane Evans's St Elmo (1866) isn't so well known nowadays but it also features a rake who repents and gets to marry the woman he loves (more details here). Both were bestsellers.

1:43 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for posting, Laura! You're right, Pamela is an excellent example of an early literary rake who reforms and achieves a happy ending (not sure why I didn't think of it when I wrote the post, save that Clarissa was on my mind since it's referenced in Les Liaisons Dangereuses). Interestingly, M. B, unlike Valmont and Lovelace but like Rochester a hundred years later, doesn't succeed in seducing/forcing himself upon the woman he's pursuing. Can anyone think of other early examples of rakes who reform and have happy endings?

I confess I hadn't heard of St. Elmo--thanks for the link to the post about it--it's fascinating!

4:16 AM  
Blogger Jenny Brown said...

Great post!

My guess is that the change in the rake's status reflects the change in how many sexual partners our readers have had. This would fit in with Laura Kinsale's argument in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women that the reader identifies with the hero.

The 1920s, when Heyer wrote, was the first time that significant numbers of otherwise "nice" girls took lovers before marriage. That may have been what made it possible for readers to embrace the rake as hero. And of course, the sexual power of the heroine at its strongest when she can "tame" a man whose sexuality has hitherto been uncontrolled.

The pre-1920s rake hero books you cite have a very different message. Pamela triumphs over Mr. B by NOT letting him be a rake with her, but her reward is a much higher status, not the assurance that her husband won't go on to mess with other chambermaids.

Jane Eyre only accepts Rochester when he's been physically mutilated to where he couldn't rake if he wanted to.

In contrast, today's rake usually gets to sleep with the heroine without giving her any commitment and we have only the author's word for it that after their sexual union he transforms very magically into a faithful spouse.

This really is a fantasy. If any of you know a real rake who transformed into an ideal husband after having uncommitted sex with a stranger, raise your hand!


5:47 AM  
Blogger Laura Vivanco said...

"To my knowledge, the classic rake first makes his appearance in literature in the Restoration era."

Mozart's Don Giovanni is a version of the Don Juan story which appears in the earlier El burlador de Sevilla (dates given for it vary, but aren't later than 1630). There's also apparently some controversy about whether that play is a version of another one, Tan largo me lo fiáis, and about its date of composition. Since I studied less Golden Age than medieval Spanish literature, I can't offer an opinion on that. One of the central characters of Lope de Vega's Fuenteovejuna (c. 1613) is a bit similar. He keeps abducting and raping/trying to rape young women. He also ends up dead.

Or what about Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well? There the rakish character ends up reformed.

6:53 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Pamela triumphs over Mr. B by NOT letting him be a rake with her

Which is exactly how Kate Perry claims to have “tamed” Russell Brand, LOL!

I’ve always thought of Petruchio as a rake reformed (and reformed by the challenge of a woman who’s possibly smarter than he is; but not everyone reads the play the way I do, with the show of submissiveness at the end as an inside joke between them).

7:14 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

"In contrast, today's rake usually gets to sleep with the heroine without giving her any commitment and we have only the author's word for it that after their sexual union he transforms very magically into a faithful spouse." That's a great point, Jenny. I do suspect changing sexual mores and that the fact that it is socially permissible for "nice" girls to have sex before marriage (which doesn't of course means it didn't happen in prior eras) has to do with the fact that today's rakes can sleep with the heroine before marriage and they can still have a happy ending. If a "nice" girl can take a lover before marriage without being ruined, then a rake may break her heart but won't destroy her social prospect, which makes him less of a potential villain.

11:46 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I was very sloppy in defining my terms, Laura! I should have said that by "the classic rake" I was thinking not just of libertine behavior but specifically of the charming, roguish seducer with a devastating way with women. I'm woefully ignorant of Spanish literature, so I can't speak to whether or not the earlier versions of Don Juan and the Lope de Vega character conform to the type.

I did think about Bertram in "All's Well that Ends Well." But he's more callow and clumsy than roguish and charming. And while productions often try to force a happy ending on the play, my reading of the text is that it's much more ambiguous. Bertram is lying and refusing to take responsibility for the girl he has (supposedly) ruined almost up until the end, and his final acceptance of Helena is conditional ("if this be true") while Helena counters that "If it appear not plain [which it plainly doesn't to Bertram] and prove untrue, Deadly divorce step between me and you." Then she turns and talks to his mother.

I did think about Angelo from "Measure for Measure" and Don John from "Much Ado", but to me mind neither is really a charming seducer. That said, it is entirely possible there are earlier examples of the type I'm missing!

11:58 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Petruchio does have the roguish charm, Kalen, but we don't have any evidence that he's gone about seducing innocent girls for sport, like Valmont or Lovelace, which I guess is where I'd draw the distinction.

12:00 PM  
Blogger Laura Vivanco said...

"I was thinking not just of libertine behavior but specifically of the charming, roguish seducer with a devastating way with women."

Ah, I see what you mean, and it does put him in a somewhat different category from a rake who's a rapist/abductor and not particularly charming or fascinating.

I suppose an equivalent type of sympathetically wicked/morally questionable character might be the protagonists of picaresque novels, but they're different from rakes since they're usually rather more interested in gaining money and/or social status than in sexual triumphs.

12:56 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Yes, the picaresque protagonists have the charm and morally ambiguity, but not so much the specific focus on sexual conquests that distinguishes characters like Valmont (who talks about writing his memoirs and is so concerned with his reputation as a seducer that he gives up the woman he loves rather than risk being laughed at) or Mozart/Da Ponte's version of Don Giovanni with his endless list.

I was thinking, following up on Jenny's point about many of today's literary rakes being transformed by sex with the heroine, that Valmont, too, finds sleeping with Madame de Tourvel a profound experience. So much so that he falls to the ground and swears eternal fidelity. And to his own surprise, he actually means it at the time "and for several hours after." But in his case the transformation doesn't last.

1:28 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Tracy, what an enviable opportunity! "Les Liaisons Dangeureuses" is one of my favorite novels and also one of the few where Christopher Hampton's stage adaptation even manages to exceed Choderos de Laclos's original by making the deliberately distanced (because of the epistolary format) immediate, and the stakes could not be higher.

I saw the original Broadway cast of Alan Rickman and Lindsey Duncan and the production remains imprinted in my mind.

That said, I found the two film versions (apart from the costumes) to be dreadful, largely because of the screenplays and some of the odd, and very American, casting. Yes, I am talking about YOU, John Malkovich. The actor's natural reptilian quality stripped the character of Valmont from any nuance and the ability of the viewer to be in any way ambivalent about this man. The rake needs to be sexy, even if he is, well, a rake, and does some pretty slimy things to the women in the story. It's what made Rickman (years before Severus Snape) so perfect as Valmont.

10:56 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Oh, I envy you, Leslie, seeing the play with Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan--that must have been fabulous!!!

12:06 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Leslie, I too am pea green with envy. What a treat to have seen Alan Rickman as Valmont! Sigh!

Fabulous post, Tracy, as usual, and quite fascinating.

Perhaps it is a fantasy to dream of a rake being reformed by nothing more than love. Then again, I have never been one to underestimate the power of that seemingly delicate emotion to crack even the most hardened of hearts.

Thanks, ladies for a fascinating discussion, one I am definitely marking for further perusal. Gives me all sorts of ideas for stories to write!

9:40 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I had to share. My confirmation word on that last post? Prickill. Makes one think, does it not?

9:41 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Too funny about your confirmation word, Louisa! I do think that good stories come from conflict and difficult/impossible situations. A rake falling (and staying) in love is obviously more fraught with challenge and story-telling possibilities than some who's just looking for the right person to settle down with.

10:29 AM  
Anonymous Tammy Moore said...

As a reader I much prefer the man who has recently become "tame" BEFORE meeting the heroine than one who becomes tamed by her. The rake who has changed his ways on his own is much more appealing (as a person), and believable, than one who is a rake up until the point-of-no-return with the love interest.
I'm currently reading "The Creators: A Comedy"‎
by May Sinclair (not a romance, but a nice read) which seems to show somewhat-rakish men more realistically. They try to change, but end up going back to their old ways (we're left wondering about liasons, but attraction-wise).

1:07 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I agree Tammy. I think rakes can make interesting heroes, but I prefer it when they reform themselves (whether it's before or after they meet the heroine) rather than being changed simply by the heroine. I do love Damerel in "Venetia", though, and he definitely begins planning to seduce Venetia and changes as he falls in love with her. But I think his inner journey is clear enough that I believe the change, despite--or perhaps because--of the fact that he tells her he makes her no guarantees regarding his future behavior.

11:58 PM  

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