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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

04 February 2008

In Praise of Silk

Recently I've turned into a luxury junkie. I have a couple of very nice Omega watches, some trendy Italian gold bracelets (Fope is my favorite jewelry designer, if you must know), and more Hermes scarves than any one woman ought to own.

I confess I feel a bit of kinship with some of our Regency heroines -- the indolent spendthrifts in particular. During a recent thunderstorm and blackout here in San Francisco, a friend of mine described cooking in her garage on a grill and lighting the house with flashlights during the 29 hour blackout. My astonished comment was, "Why didn't you move into a hotel for the night?" Yes, you can call me Princess. I'll even answer to Prin.

Back to the scarf thing. Hermes scarves have become something of an obsession, truth be told. My hardscrabble immigrant grandparents would turn cartwheels in their graves if they knew I'm on a first name basis with the Sales Associates in a store that sells handbags that cost between six and twenty thousand dollars. Of course the scarves are a bit more affordable, though still pricey considering they weigh a couple of ounces. But there is something so utterly luxurious about draping fine silk around your neck. Or cashmere. Or a fine linen/silk blend.

Naturally this collection is something I have to justify to myself, given my hardworking roots. But how?

I haven't resolved that question yet, but it did lead me to thinking about the typical Regency heroine. Here is a woman who benefits from an all-too-cruel social hierarchy, who lives in luxury while those who serve her are often reduced to illness and injury while in her service. How did the average Regency heroine justify this?

It seems to be a topic left out of most romance novels, even in passing. Sure, there are one or two heroines who get involved in a minor subplot saving orphans or climbing boys, but we rarely see women who wonder about the social discrepancy of their times. Where are the true reformers of fiction?

It could be that I'm making too much of this and it's simply a factor of the social constructs of the time. People didn't question the sovereign right of kings (or rather, the few who did question it aren't painted in a pretty light historically). Given the sense of entitlement permeating the aristocracy, perhaps there were no niggling doubts that needed justified or glossed over. After all, even "simple courtesies" often didn't exist for those a rung lower on the social scales. I remember scenes where the heroine's maid was left to walk in the rain, as though those of inferior birth and breeding didn't need to be offered the consideration of an umbrella.

I'd love to hear thoughts on this from other authors and readers. Do you ever get the sense that we're missing an opportunity to add some depth to our heroines by making them more insightful about social inequities? Or are there books out there that have covered this ground? Or would it simply destroy the magic of a good romance to have a moralizing heroine?


P.S. -- I refuse to disclose the extent of my Hermes scarf collection on the grounds that it may incriminate me. However, if you're in San Francisco for the RWA conference in July, I promise to be wearing a scarf anytime you see me.

23 Comments:

Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Doreen, I'm looking forward to seeing your collection of scarves! I've read books, although no title comes to mind at the time, where the heroine, at least those living in the country, seem to have an idea of the inequalities through visiting the tenants on their estates. Certainly Jane Austen was aware it.

But I think that most women at the time, weren't really conscious of it. Or if they were, they gave it no more thought than what dress to wear to the next party. I have no quibble with a heroine who shows indignation at the inequalities between the rich and the poor, but I don't want it to dominate the novel.

5:47 AM  
Anonymous polydegmon said...

I live in the Palm Beaches so I feel VERY confident saying that it was unlikely most of them gave it any consideration at all. The children of multi-generational wealth are often shocking in their disregard for people not of their social class and rigid in their expectations of same, and that's in America in modern times. Transporting that back to an entrenched class system where progressive thought is discouraged and it becomes even less likely. While I'm sure some did consider it (and some books reflect it) I think the completely oblivious heroine/hero is more likely.

6:15 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Sad to say, the historical reality is that it probably wouldn't occur to many of the upper-crust romance heroines. The more aware heroines, the do-gooders -- unless the author's research justifies their actions, (a Hannah More type, for example)-- may seem more like a sop to modern readers who perhaps won't (or editors and publishers think they won't) relate to or sympathize with a heroine who appears heedless or ignorant.

My historical fiction tends to be about actual historical personages, and the heroines like Emma Hamilton and Mary Robinson were actually faced with the plights of the poor and middle classes. Emma Hamilton really did relate to the hired help. And Mary Robinson wrote about the dignity of an elderly black servant in their employ, was keenly aware of the evils of slavery and some of her published poems focused on the humanity and dignity of the enslaved Africans, in order to bring attention to the issue.

8:17 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I remember scenes where the heroine's maid was left to walk in the rain, as though those of inferior birth and breeding didn't need to be offered the consideration of an umbrella.

That would be chapter 1 of my The Slightest Provocation, I believe -- in which I worked to create a literate, even radical, heroine who hung out with poets and reformers, but who (being a product of her times and upbringing) didn't always remember to extend certain courtesies to her maid. I tried to refrain from slapping her for it in my prose -- leaving that for my readers to do, hopefully.

8:40 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I'd have to agree with the general sentiment---it seems unlikely that most ladies of good birth worried too much about the servants.

I watched Jane Austen Regrets last night---the poorness of her family seemed be a dominate theme (along with marrying a rich man)...I'm no Austen expert, but I can't recall the inequities of the servant class being something she wrote much about.

9:19 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

But Jane Austen was well aware more than most of the indignities that were visited on those who didn't have any money, not necessarily the servant class. I too watched Jane Austen Regrets last night and actually enjoyed it. It took the taste of the truly awful Mansfield Park out of my mouth.

I actually have a character in my historical YA who is very aware of the poor through the settlement houses in New York, but my book takes place in 1895. And my character, although wealthy, is not an aristocrat and American.

9:58 AM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Wow, what thought-provoking comments.

Amanda's point about an enlightened heroine being a "sop to the modern reader" has my wheels turning. There does seem to be a certain pressure from editors to make heroes and heroines have modern sensibilities in Regency romances.

Pam, I personally loved that little touch of yours in The Slightest Provocation. It reminded me of a few scenes in Emma, where the heroine is not all bad, but she has these blind spots about her own circumstances (Ausen makes it pretty clear that Emma's snobbery is not entirely deserved, being that they aren't all that wealthy compared to the Knightlys).

It seems that Polydegmon is right our own upper class has the same attitude. I suppose a lot of my own discomfort with doing well is because my grandparents were outrageously poor. My father did the whole "rags to riches" Horatio Alger thing, without going through a moderate phase, so I'm pretty close to my coal mining/child labor roots.

10:08 AM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Elizabeth, you are completely right about Austen. She has a real feeling for women of her time being a blink away from prostitution. It's there in every novel, from Miss Bates to Anne Elliot. One of my favorite scenes in Sense & Sensibility is when the Colonel describes the life his first love was forced into after his father cast her out. Those hard realities were obvious to Austen -- but then again, her family wasn't of the top ten thousand so she probably had daily proof of the fine edge that women tread.

10:13 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

I don't think a character needs to "moralize" about a social problem, but yes, I do think it adds depth if a character notices it. However, I've been criticized for having a heroine who is "too twentieth century." This criticism usually comes from someone unfamiliar with the medieval period in depth.

10:40 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating topic, Doreen! I think then, as now, there would have been a range of responses depending on what one was exposed to. Mélanie in my series actually does confront the paradox, because as she says at one point "I claim to believe in liberty, equality, and fraternity" and I live here." ("Here" being an elegant town house in Berkeley Square with a number of servants). She's also far more aware of inequities when it comes to the servants than other heroines I've written. "For the first year she'd had to bite her tongue to keep from apologizing to the servants for the charade of the roles society forced them all to play. Even today, she was sometimes brought up short by the realization of how how her marriage to Charles had catapulted her neatly over an artificial and unconscionable social divide. Yet the longer one played a role, the more natural it became. She had grown all too comfortable with hte privileges she had married into."

Given Mélanie's background, I think that's believable. It also in a sense goes to my own experience--my liberal principles sometimes coming up against my fondness for luxuries, particularly clothes :-). (In my case it isn't Hèrmes scarves, it's Temperley dresses). I look forward to seeing your scarf collection, Doreen!

10:43 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Tracy, I too have a weakness for Temperley dresses (bought a really nice one at Target when she did her limited edition collection), as well as Diane von Furstenberg. Love eBay.

11:16 AM  
Blogger seton said...

awww, I cant believe you're not showing your Hermes carre collection. I know a man in Italy who has 1200 of em. Are you a member of HSCI?

1:51 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I guess I'm more thrown by the heroines who are BBF with their maids then by the ones who treat them more indifferently. If just seems so wrong/revisionist to me. I've been criticized because the heroine of my first book isn't traumatized when her maid dies in a fire "off screen" from her POV. I try to keep Gosford Park in mind when I write servants and masters interacting. Yes, some of them might be friendly. Some might even BE friends, but there is still a master/servant gulf that needs to be addressed/recognized.

I mean, do most of us today think about the labor that goes into our clothing, our fruits and vegetables, our mass-produced, well, everything? No, we don't. We couldn't get by with the guilt if we actually THOUGHT about the inequities that are alive and well today (and thriving in the modern paradigm of off-shoring). Or at least I couldn't. I try and buy local, buy American, etc. But as recent scandals have shown us, you can't avoid China even if you read labels and shop conscientiously. It's usually hidden back there somewhere in the distant details of the origin of your item (even if it's only in the raw materials).

5:52 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Seton, I absolutely am a member of HSCI (Hermes Scarf Collectors International) and I believe I know (in an Internet sense) the Italian man of whom you speak! Another of my Italian friends has a stunning collection, particularly when combined with her mother's.

One of the reasons I don't "publish" my scarf collection is because it's something of a revolving door. I have only a handful of scarves I've kept more than two years. My tastes have changed over the years.

6:11 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Kalen, I agree that it's far more disconcerting when aristocratic heroines are BBF with their maids. On the one hand, a maid was probably the first to know if a heroine got pregnant. When someone's seeing you naked every day for a few years, I'd think you'd have some kind of a trust relationship develop.

On the other hand, the maid (almost always) was paid by a male person, not the heroine, so her loyalties would have leaned toward keeping her employment, not the heroine's secrets. I've always found it hard to believe when fictional maids leave with the eloping heroine.

6:15 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

One more thing Kalen's comment brought up. One of the reasons I don't think about the labor that goes into the products I use is because I don't see those people on a daily basis. I think if I did, I'd give them some consideration or at least a passing "there but for the grace..." thought.

6:17 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

What a fascinating topic, Doreen, and one I have not really thought about before now. I tend to agree that even the most enlightened woman of noble / wealthy birth would have blind spots where servants were concerned. There is a fine line between a heroine not treating her servants like furniture and one moving out of the realm of realistic behavior by befriending her maid.

8:20 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Thanks for your post, Doglady.

Speaking of servants as "furniture". Does anyone know if it's true that servants walked into rooms without knocking? That they were expected to "not see" what was going on in the room? I've always wondered if that was a Regency Urban Legend.

8:47 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

All of my research leans toward that exact thing. Servants were like those three monkeys - See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

Speaking of evil, I dare not even THINK about acquiring a Hermes scarf. I have a friend who swears they are more addictive than crack!!

My addiction of choice is cameos. I LOVE them! The more unusual and rare the better. My other wicked indulgence is Wedgewood jewelry. Not terribly expensive, but not cheap!

9:26 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Yes, I *love* cameos! I have a lovely one from Italy that my parents brought me, and now I'm a huge fan.

"As addictive as crack," LOL. I think your friend is right. When I first joined HSCI, it was because I wanted to learn more before buying my first Hermes. I thought I'd save money and get it on eBay. I never dreamed of buying a second, yet here I am pushing 50 scarves!

10:29 PM  
Blogger Gillian Layne said...

At 50 scarves, Doreen, I'd consider them not so much an indulgence as a retirement portfolio that you just happen to enjoy right now. ;)

12:32 AM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

I hope you're right, Gillian, but there's never a guarantee that you'll be able to sell a scarf for more than you paid. I think of them as a hobby. And hey, it's OK to spend money on a hobby. :)

2:52 AM  
Blogger Patricia Rice said...

I'm a scarf lover as well. Maybe we all have Regency roots?

I believe the one thing you have to take into consideration in favor of our heroines is that they have absolutely no control over their money. Wives might have a bit of "pin" money but daughters are most likely charging their purchases to their father's accounts. There is very little they can do to spread the wealth except spend their father's money.

3:37 PM  

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