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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

01 October 2008

Unconventional Wisdom


It will probably come as no surprise to anyone who's read any of my books (or even my blog posts) that I like characters who are rule-breakers. I strive for historical accuracy in my books, but my most of my characters could hardly be called conventional (if I wrote about modern-day characters I doubt they’d be called conventional either). One of the readers who posts on my blog emailed me recently with some interesting questions about writing historical fiction and being accurate to the mores of the time. She asked if readers prefer historical accuracy in characters’ attitudes and behavior, however unpleasant by today’s standards, or a romantic whitewash of the past. Her question inspired my blog this week on my own website, and I thought it would be fun to revisit the topic here. Hoydens, after all, are rule-breakers by definition, and many of my fellow History Hoydens have written some of my favorite rule-breaking characters.

Part of researching an era is getting to know its conventions, the rules (many unwritten) that governed social interactions, from introductions to insults to courtship and marriage. And yet so many of my favorite characters defy conventions. Sir Percy Blakeney, a seemingly typical pink of the ton, has secret adventures in France as the Scarlet Pimpernel and (probably more shocking from the point of view of the English ton) marries a French actress. Sophy Stanton-Lacey in Heyer’s The Grand Sophy (one of my favorite Heyer heroines from the age of ten) drives a carriage down St. James’s Street, right past the gentlemen’s clubs. Teen-aged Philippa Somerville leaves her home in northern England and follows Francis Crawford of Lymond round the Mediterranean. And rule-breaking characters aren’t found only in works by historical novelists dealing with the conventions of the past. Shakespeare frequently has his characters defy the conventions of their world. Heroines such as Viola, Rosalind, and Imogen disguise themselves as men. Portia not only dons male attire but impersonates a lawyer (quite brilliantly). Benedick breaks with his best friend and Prince to consider Beatrice’s perspective when her cousin is (falsely) accused. Romeo and Juliet marry in secret in defiance of their parents, and Juliet deceives her parents by faking her own death to run off with Romeo.

Elizabeth Bennet can’t get away with the behavior of some more social secure heroines but is definitely a convention-defier in her own way, from tramping through the mud to see Jane to refusing Mr. Collins’s proposal. She stops short, though, of behavior that would endanger her family's reputation and fragile position (unlike her sister Lydia). Jane Bennet is a more conventional foil for Elizabeth. I like Jane a lot as a character, but I’m not sure I’d want to read a book with her as the heroine. There certainly wouldn't be nearly the conflict if a man like Fitzwilliam Darcy fell in love with Jane rather than Elizabeth. Jane and Bingley's romance needs Darcy and Caroline Bingley to create complications. Elizabeth and Darcy have tension inherent in who they both are, not just in birth, but in personalities and approaches to life. It isn't just that Elizabeth comes from a different world than Darcy. Even in her own world, she's not precisely a conventional young woman.

In any era, one can find a wide range of behaviors, some well outside the accepted conventions of the day. Rules create obstacles. Having characters push against those obstacles can create wonderful conflict. The key, I think, is to create characters who would believably break rules based on who they are and the forces that have shaped them and to make sure to deal with the consequences of their rule breaking in the world round them.

Emma Hamilton, whom Amanda brilliantly brought to life in Too Great a Lady, is a real life example of a woman who defied a number of the conventions of her day. She rose to dizzying heights but also suffered the consequences of breaking society's rules. In Amanda's vivid portrait, we see the forces and events that shape Emma into the woman she is.

George, the heroine of Kalen's Lord Sin, is also a rule-breaker, but unlike Emma Hamilton she was born to a secure position in society which affords her a certain amount of protection. And in the course of the book, we learn enough about her past and see enough of her family and friends to understand why she's a rule-breaker. Though she is secure enough in her friends, family, and fortune not to be ostracized for her behavior, we see more conventional characters who throw her behavior into relief. I haven't read Pam's upcoming The Edge of Impropriety yet, but from the excerpts and what I've heard about the story, the heroine is also hardly conventional and her past is sketched out in a way that lets the reader understand why and to see the consequences of her behavior in the society she lives in.

Thinking back to my recent posts on Courtesan Heroines and Libertine Heroes, I think that part of the appeal of both these character types is that they are, by definition, rule-breakers. Lord Vaughn, in Lauren's The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, is a wonderful example of a libertine hero who defies convention not just in his amorous intrigues but in his way of looking at the world. Which is part of the reason, I think, that he is perhaps the only man who can see Mary, the heroine, for who she really is, not the conventional society beauty she appears to be. As the story unfolds the reader, along with Mary, learns the events and forces that have shapes Vaughn into the man he is.

When I created Mélanie and Charles Fraser, I knew I was developing an unconventional pair of characters. They had to be rule-breakers for the stories I wanted to write about them to work. So I kept that in mind as I worked out their back stories. Charles and Mélanie both have a number of reasons for being unconventional—the people and books and ideas they were exposed to as children, young adult lives lived out against the chaos of the Peninsular War instead of in orderly drawing rooms and clubs, unexpected dangers that have forced them outside the roles they might have more naturally played in life (in Mélanie’s case, there is even more to this than the reader or Charles realizes at first).

By the time Secrets of a Lady begins, Mélanie and Charles are living a more sedate life in London, yet they are still known for being unconventional. Charles has some decidedly atypical (from our perspective we might say “modern”) views on men and women and marriage. At one point in Secrets he thinks:

[He] had always claimed that whose bed a woman had shared before her marriage was no more a man’s business than it was a wife’s business to ask the same about her husband. He recalled arguing as much in an after-dinner discussion fueled by plentiful port. ‘It’s all very well to try to outrage us with your bohemian sensibilities, Fraser,’ one of the other men present has said, staggering to the sideboard, where their host kept a chamber pot. ‘You’d feel differently if it was your own wife we were talking about.’

Charles knows his views are atypical. One of the reasons he is able to get away with expressing them is the protection of family and fortune. The grandson of a duke, connected (as Mélanie thinks at one point) “to half the British peerage”, he may cause some raised eyebrows, but he isn’t going to be barred from most Mayfair drawing rooms. And as his wife, Mélanie can get away with things that would spell ruin for Elizabeth Bennet.

Which doesn’t mean she can get away with everything. One of the tensions of Secrets (which will continue in subsequent books in the series) and is the that Mélanie knows she is admired and sought after by a society that would shun her if they the faintest idea of her origins. Mélanie’s rule breaking is usually born of the situation rather than a need to shock (such as Barbara Childe in Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army, one of my favorite convention-defying heroines). When I got to a scene in Beneath a Silent Moon where Mélanie and Charles are going to explore a secret passage in the middle of the night, it occurred to me that it would have been very foolish of her not to pack a shirt and breeches, knowing the sort of adventures she might be getting into. On the other hand it would never occur to me (or to Mélanie) for her to dress so for a morning ride in Hyde Park.

Not that I'd necessarily find it unbelievable for the heroine in a Regency-set novel to go for a morning ride in Hyde Park in a shirt and breeches. What I'd find unbelievable would be if no one commented if she did so.

Do you like to read and write about unconventional characters? Do you prefer it to be the heroine who is the rule-breaker or the hero or both? What determines whether or not you find it believable when a character defies convention in an historical setting? Writers, what are the challenges you’ve found in writing such characters?

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17 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Tracy, thanks for such a provocative post (and for the compliments!) As I was researching Emma Hamilton's life for TOO GREAT A LADY, one thing that struck me was how perfect her life would be for a novel.

Are there others out there who read about an actual historical person and think that they'd make a great fictional hero/[ine]?

In many ways it was easy for me to translate Emma to fiction because she had all the requisite qualities: beauty, grit, determination, plenty of conflict (both internal and external), a life that went from rags to riches (and back to rags again--a perfect parabola). She inspired artists; she sought true love all her life and ultimately found it (and lost it) in the arms of her country and her age's greatest hero. And yes, she broke all the rules of contemporary society.

Since she wasn't born into that society, I like to think that she made her own rules as she struggled to live in a world that wouldn't have accepted her even if she'd obeyed their "rules" to the letter.

Banging around my head was that classic phrase "you can't make this stuff up!" where truth is so much stranger (or more exciting) than fiction that the story, ironically, cries out to become fiction.

But what I keep coming back to as I consider Emma, or Mary Robinson, or Nell Gwyn, or many other real-life heroines who have become the fictional heroines of their own life stories is a concept that is very precious to me: choice.

Women like Emma Hamilton were born into, and had to learn to survive (struggling much of the way), in a world where people with baseborn, uneducated, country backgrounds had very little in the way of choice. British society, so class-based, was hardly fluid. Even those who broke through it by dint of hard work, marriage, or intellect and ingenuity, were most often not truly embraced by it, always considered merely nouveaux riches or parvenus.

Offered so few choices in life, at every turn Emma had to select from those limited options and then make the most of her opportunities. When I discuss Emma Hamilton with my readers, and I ask them whether (had they the same background as Emma) they would choose the life of the kept woman over that of the factory girl, most women, however prudish, choose the uneasy life of comfort over the certain despair of permanent destitution.

5:35 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Tracy, I love reading about unconventional heroines and heroes. Just the fact that I started blogging about them at Scandalous Women, is proof positive. History is littered with women who defied the mores and times they lived in, from Zenobia to Beryl Markham, from Olimpia Maidalchini to Mata Hari. Anyone who picks up a historical fiction novel or romance, with an unconventional hero or heroine and says "well they would never do that!" just needs to look at the history to know that yes, indeed they did.

Sure they may have suffered for it, and some didn't have a happy ending, but I doubt that they would have done things differently. It was because of the restraints actually that some women like Olimpia Maidalchini, had to stealthily pursue power through the men in their lives. Or like Eleanor of Aquitaine they just seized it.

Mata Hari reinvented herself after a terrible marriage.

5:49 AM  
Blogger Linda Banche said...

Sometimes I think historical novels reflect the period in which they are written, rather than the period they are set in. For a long time, historical novels would have unconventional heroines coming to a bad end. Why? Because such behavior by women is dangerous to the power structure at the time the novel was written.

I think of the movies of the early 30's, which had strong, unconventional and even bad girl heroines triumphing. And then censorship came in, and the bad girls either came to a bad end, or they had to "reform" to meet society's standards.

Nowadays we don't see that, and I like it. I don't want to read about doormats.

And unconventional doesn't mean reckless. As in your example, Melanie packing a shirt and breeches so she could explore a secret passage is unconventional. Wearing them riding in Hyde Park at the fashionable hour would be reckless.

6:28 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I LOVE an unconventional heroines. The heroine of my novel LOST IN LOVE is a horse thief!

I often wonder which would be more difficult - to be unconventional because life has dealt you such a hand you have no choice or to be unconventional because that is who you are.

Women born to tough circumstances often have to become unconventional to survive. Is it easier or hard if a woman is born to privilege and CHOOSES to be unconventional for reasons that are strictly her own?

6:30 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Amanda, I so agree the conventional choices for a woman like Emma offering her little but a bleak future. It's not as though by breaking social conventions she threw away a secure life. The choices she made every step of the way and why she made the come through beautifully in your book.

Elizabeth, your blog is a great resource for highlighting rule-breaking women through history. I think the historical novelist can motivate just about any behavior in any era. The trick is making sure the motivation is clear and dealing with the social consequences.

Linda, I don't like to read about doormat heroines either :-). I think historical novels do reflect the time in which they were written as well as the time in which they were set--I don't think that's a bad thing, if the writer is consciously using one era as a reflection of the other or highlighting similarities and differences. What's frustrating is when the past is shown as the present in period costumes. Definitely agree about unconventional not meaning reckless.

Louisa, that's a fascinating question about whether an unconventional life is harder if the character has no choice or if she (or he) is born to a life of privilege. Certainly, as Amanada points out so well, for a woman like Emma Hamilton (or Mary Robison or Nell Gwyn) the conventional choice would hardly have been a comfortable life. On the other hand, the very well wealthy and wellborn could get away with more unconventional behavior without losing their position. I think it would be hardest for women like the Bennet or Dashwood sisters who had enough social position that (which might lead to a comfortable marriage) that they stood to lose if they were ruined but didn't have fortune and powerful family to protect them.

8:57 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Fascinating area of speculation, Tracy, bringing to mind one of the items on Janet Mullany's list of Ten Things a Regency Heroine Would Never Say:

I never really wanted to be a writer/surgeon/spy/scientist/explorer/archaeologist/herbalist/highwayperson/governess/publisher/artist/balloonist/acrobat/pirate/opera singer/engineer. It just seemed to make me more attractive to eligible men.

9:51 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Also reminding me of something my husband often says, that fiction is often a meeting of and a conflict between The Typical and The Exceptional. As in all those fairy tales that swing into action with the phrase "but the third son..."

10:06 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Love the quote from Janet, Pam!

Your husband's comment about the Typical and the Exceptional also reminds me of the idea that stories begin on the day that is different somehow. When I brought up this topic on my own website, some readers talked about conventional characters who defy convention in the course of the story. In a sense one might put Darcy in that category.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Excellent point about stories beginning on the day that is different somehow! In all my years of performing and critiquing plays, one of the things you want a dramatist to bear in mind is "why is today--right now, when this scene is taking place--different from any other day?" I think a lot of items that fall under the heading "Dramatic Question" are equally applicable to novels.

3:41 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

As they say, "Well-behaved women seldom make history."

I think that pretty much says it all. This was a great post, Tracy!

A somewhat period novel which deals with someone who literally defines herself and her life by The Rules and through the course of the novel realizes she needs to break free of them to truly live, is "Heartbreak Hotel," by Anne Rivers Siddons. It's set in 1956, in the pre-civil rights South. If you haven't read it (or anything else by Siddons) run straight to the library. Now. :)

I agree with your assessment of Jane Bennet. She was sweet and made a great foil for her sister, but focusing the novel on her would have been bo-ring. The same could be said for Melanie Wilkes in GWTW, or a dozen other "best friends" to our favorite rule-breakers.

Thanks for all this food for thought!

3:42 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Amanda, I find looking at the dramatic structure of plays a great help in novel writing. The conflict arcs tend to be very clear and concise. I actually plot my books in a three-act structure.

Jessica, I so agree. You need conventional characters to show how the rule-breaking characters are unconventional, but I don't find them interesting in general as the focus of the story. Unless they change, as it sounds as though the character in "Heartbreak Hotel" does.

3:51 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Jane Bennet... was sweet and made a great foil for her sister, but focusing the novel on her would have been bo-ring. The same could be said for Melanie Wilkes...

But what of Jane Fairfax in Emma? Or the sublime Mary Crawford, who my son the Victorianist insists is the focus of Mansfield Park.

5:10 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Pam, Mary Crawford is my favorite character in "Mansfield Park," and I think I could agree with your son that she's the focus of the story. Fanny Price, on the other hand, to me proves that a conventional heroine can be boring and more than a bit irritating (Fanny was actually the inspiration for Evie in "Beneath a Silent Moon").

Jane Fairfax is seen so much through others' eyes (primarily Emma's) in the book that it's hard to get a sense of what she'd be like as the focus of a story. But her secret engagement and ability to keep up a pretense is hardly the action of an entirely conventional young woman.

Elinor Dashwood comes closer to being a conventional heroine who I actually do like. In a sort of reverse of Jane and Elizabeth or Melanie and Scarlet, she needs Marianne's reckless behavior and disregard for social convention to show the wisdom of her own conventional good sense.

8:22 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Hi Tracy,

I'm all for the unconventional heroine...her out of the historical place and time attitudes make her all the richer.

Even a good conventional heroine can be interesting, though. Like the child-like wife of William Rackham, Agnes, in the Crimson Petal and the White...bound by rigid conventions of the Victorian era, her obsession with what it meant to be a proper lady (and a pious one) revealed layers of a complex personality. Conventional to appearances, tortured on the inside.

8:27 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Good point, Kathrynn--characters who are conventional on the outside but have a complicated inner life that may be at odds with their outward behavior can be fascinating. Though I also think part of what makes Agnes work is the contrast with Sugar (who, going back to Amanda's point, hardly has the choice of living a conventional life).

8:36 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

My favorite 19th century unconventional heroine is Cynthia Kirkpatrick in Mrs. Gaskell's Wives and Daughters. The book comes alive for me when Cynthia waltzes onto the page to cheerfully announce to lovable, sturdy Molly Gibson that she loathes her indeed quite loathsome mother (Molly's stepmother) and that Molly should as well.

OK, she's not the real heroine; Molly is, and Molly's just fine. But Cynthia won my heart for her confused honesty and tightly wound intelligence -- I used a little bit of her in Fannie Grandin in The Slightest Provocation.

On the other hand, Cynthia makes a conventional, cynical, proper moneyed marriage. So is she a conventional or an unconventional heroine?

The question is, what do we want from a heroine? I have a soft spot in my heart for the angry, striving cynics, but by and large I don't think they cut it in romance, do they?

And though not a striver or a cynic in Emma, Jane Fairfax might be one of the angriest young women in English fiction. In her quiet way, I like to think of her as a sister under the skin to Becky Sharp. Perhaps if more of her story were "known"...

While as for Marina Wyatt in my forthcoming The Edge of Impropriety -- well, the point there is that for some years Marina has managed a successful, if precarious, balancing act on the edge of social respectability. Until (as we were saying) one day...

11:28 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

"On the other hand, Cynthia makes a conventional, cynical, proper moneyed marriage. So is she a conventional or an unconventional heroine?"

Good question, Pam--it points up the fact that unconventional behavior and unconventional attitudes don't necessarily go hand in hand. But both go, I think, to support the idea that there is a wide range of ways of thinking as well as behaving in any era.

I'm fascinated by the idea of Jane Fairfax as "a sister under the skin to Becky Sharp." It's a comparison that I don't think would have occurred to me, as I don't see Jane as having Becky's manipulative side or Becky's determination to claw her way out of poverty. I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on the subject.

I think it's interesting that we've been talking about heroines, perhaps because there are so many more rules and conventions that restrict them historically. But I think heroes who are rule-breakers or who have unconventional attitudes are very interesting. I tend to find it a very attractive quality in a hero particularly if those unconventional attitudes involve the role of women :-).

12:02 AM  

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