Recently I blogged about Courtesan Heroines, both here and on my own website. Both posts generated a lot of fascinating discussion. The discussion touched on the fact that, as a literary archetype, the courtesan heroine has a great deal in common with the libertine hero. I think it’s particularly interesting that both types of characters are often portrayed as having known a number of lovers but never having actually been in love. I did a follow-up post on my own website that about Libertine Heroes that I thought it would be fun to repeat here, especially as so many of the similarities are differences between the Libertine Hero and the Courtesan Heroine are rooted in historical mores and double standards.
In the discussion of courtesan heroines, our own Pam Rosenthal commented, “I’m particularly taken with the notion (implicit in some of the comments) that the knowing courtesan is a female counterpart to the as-yet-untamed rake, and that both of these fantasy images may play parts in the romance marriage reconciliation — the erotics of an ideal marriage demanding a shadow/other/past to provide a sort of chiaroscuro modeling of its present.”
Of course there differences–the libertine hero is indulging in a life of pleasure. The courtesan heroine may be enjoying herself, but she’s also earning a living (hopefully a very good one). And in literature, though both tend to find their one true love, their fates tend to me quite different. As I wrote, “I think as literary archetypes there’s a definite parallel between the libertine (particularly the libertine who has yet to fall in love) and the courtesan (particularly the courtesan who has yet to fall in love). But I can think of far more stories where the libertine finds true love and settles down to a happily ever after than where the courtesan does (one reason I found the idea of Loretta Chase’s book so refreshing).”
Elizabeth Kerri Mahon commented, “It’s that old double standard, while it is fine in fiction and in real life for a man to be a bit of a male slut, it is not fine for a woman to use her body out of necessity or to enjoy too much sex.”
So while Marguerite/Violetta in La Dame aux Camelias/La Traviata is in a sense redeemed by falling love with the much more innocent Armand/Alfredo, much like many rakish heroes redeemed by the love of an innocent young girl, she doesn’t live happily ever after, she dies of consumption.
Rakish heroes are also much more prevalent in romantic fiction than courtesan heroines. In some ways, I think, it’s part of the fantasy. As Pam said, “One assumes that at the end of Pride and Prejudice, when D and E retreat behind the well-guarded gates of Pemberley, D has brought not only his riches, but a richness of worldly erotic experience — so Lizzy gets to spend her life clipping coupons, if I may call it that.”
Not that there’s anything implicit in Pride and Prejudice to indicate that Darcy has any more worldly erotic experience than Lizzy does (except that as an man he’d be more likely to be experienced). But I think we tend to assume he’s experienced. Just as I think we tend to assume Percy Blakeney has some past experience, though it is never addressed in the Scarlet Pimpernel books. As Dorthe wrote in the discussion on my website, “She [Baroness Orczy] never mentions Percy’s past (a fiancée - Mary de Courcy -appeared in her son’s biography of Percy). I find it hard to imagine Percy with another women, yet I don’t see him as a virgin….In a way Percy and Marguerite mirror Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Peter and Harriet also had this deep bond. Both had affairs earlier, but they never loved anyone the way they loved each other.”
And while I wouldn’t call Peter Wimsey a libertine, he definitely has a world of erotic experience. Far more so than Harriet, who had one, not particularly satisfying, lover. The difference in Peter’s and Harriet’s sexual knowledge comes through delicately but unmistakably in Busman’s Honeymoon.
Francis Crawford of Lymond spends six books indulging in every sort of erotic adventure (along with all other sorts of adventures) but doesn’t fall in love until late in book five (in one of the loveliest discovering love scenes I’ve ever read).
The worldly, rakish hero who finds true love can be a very powerful story. Venetia is one of favorite Georgette Heyer novels (largely because, despite the difference in their erotic experience, Venetia and Damerel are so very clearly well-matched soul mates). But sometimes I find myself longing for a hero who is a bit less debauched. I like Heyer’s Charles Rivenhall (The Grand Sophy) and Charles Audley (An Infamous Army) for that reason. My own Charles Fraser in my books probably owes his name a bit to both of them. Charles wasn’t a virgin when he married Mélanie, though he was a lot less experienced than she was. In fact, though I haven’t really dealt with this yet in the books, he was even less experienced than she realizes.
Perhaps because of this, Charles in a sense takes sex a lot more seriously than Mélanie does. He’s much more inclined to romanticize it and at the same time much less comfortable with desire. As Mélanie says in Beneath a Silent Moon, Lovemaking doesn’t always have to mean more than an exchange of pleasure. Surely there’s no harm if the pleasure is mutual.
To which Charles replies, That reduces us to rutting animals.
And Mélanie says, Perhaps animals have the right idea. They don’t try to think about everything so much.
Charles, of course, is inclined to think about everything, which is one of the things I love about him. He can’t separate sex from its emotional resonances, which is why he’s constitutionally incapable of being a libertine. As he thinks in Secrets of a Lady, Intimacy was difficult enough for him. He could never bring himself to pay for the substitute.
What do you think of libertine heroes? Do you like them better paired with innocent heroines or experienced women? What sort of assumptions do you make about the sexual history of characters like Darcy, whose erotic past is not touched on in the pages of the novel? Any favorite examples to suggest of heroes who are libertines or heroes who are quite the opposite? What makes these characters work?