Roads to Rome... and speculations along the way
Note: there are spoilers in this post, about the HBO series "Rome."
I like to say that the book I'm working on these days has three themes -- eros, esthetics, and empire. Set in Regency England, it's the story of a love affair between a classicist/archeologist (one of those guys who traveled around the Mediterranean in the early 19th century in search of ancient cultures and artifacts) and a lady writer of silver fork novels.
If you follow the links above they'll take you to some earlier blog posts about the fun places my researches have taken me -- perhaps farther afield than in any of my books so far. And so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that the classicist/archeologist investigations should have led me to Rome.
Which I got to both by the high road -- I'm reading the Aeneid to keep up with my hero's precocious, classically-educated 12-year-old niece...
...and the low road -- I totally wrecked myself for writing earlier this week when I stayed up much too late watching disks IV and V of "Rome" the TV series.
Of course only in the service of my book. The other fun stuff (Clothes! Interiors! Architecture! What looks like animal sacrifice but probably isn't! Gorgeous naked people! Having what looks like sex but most assuredly isn't) -- watching all that stuff was a tough job but somebody had to do it.
And if you believe that, there's a famous bridge across San Francisco Bay that maybe I could sell you...
The TV series is big, sexy, splashy fun with wonderful plummy Brit elocution and lots of scenery chewing. Polly Walker provides the guilty pleasures as heartless sexy Roman uberbitch matron Atia. And James Purefoy manages to be both hunky and touching as the always hot and not always quite smart enough Marc Antony.
My favorite cast member, though, was a young Irish actress I'd never heard of. Kerry Condon as a very down-to-earth Octavia -- sister of Augustus Caesar, who gets the short end of just about every situation -- has a striking non-glam look that sets her aside from the rest of the cast. And she provides tons of presence against the fun, flashier Walker.
But what really surprised me about the TV series was how tied up it was with another theme I'm using in the book I'm currently working on. It's one that comes up so often in romance fiction that I'd taken it much too much for granted until I saw how much the plot line of "Rome" depended up it.
Fatherhood -- legitimate and not.
"One of the oldest stories," my classicist hero muses, thinking of Oedipus -- and of his own situation (as a father unknown by his own biological son).
And now that I think of it it seems to me that possibly one of the most perennial and least remarked-upon themes in romance fiction is the character in search of his or her real father.
Of course, when property was transmitted through primogeniture and primogeniture depended upon legitimate male descent, an entire society was built upon the notion of fatherhood. And since love doesn't necessarily follow marriage, and since for most of human history it was impossible to know for sure... well, fatherhood was always suspect, and voila you have any number of romance plots that link personal and public life at any number of points along the way.
It also seems to me that since the romance genre is always an effort either to understand men or create versions of them we especially like, the hero-and-his-father issue is awfully useful. I was surprised to read the same line in pretty much the same place in my friend Nita Abrams' novel The Exiles as I once used in The Bookseller's Daughter. "You're not your father, you know," the heroine tells the hero. Neither Nita nor I read each other's book before writing our own. And whereas I don't know about her, I do know that I had cause actually to say that line once in real life.
So it's always an available plot motif, and the writers of "Rome" use it like duct tape and baling wire to pull their series together. Lucius Vorenus's wife commits suicide rather than deal with the consequences of admitting one of her children isn't her husband's. Titus Pullo is the real father (or so the made-up story has it) of Cleopatra's son Caesarean.
Which works fine, in a potboilerish fashion that keeps the spectacle moving along. But there's also a place where I thought they did better than fine with it. In a tiny scene that's almost a throwaway, Octavia, who's been forced into a political marriage to Marc Antony, tells her former lover, Agrippa, that she's pregnant. Agrippa, who's left her to pursue his own political career, asks whose child it is. Octavia says she doesn't know, and asks what it matters when both possible fathers are so inadequate.
Leading me to look again at romance, and to consider whether in our genre the story behind the love story isn't often also one of successful or unsuccessful parenting and particularly the presence or absence of fathers...
And wondering what you think as well about fatherhood as a theme in historical romance fiction.