The Privileged Class Enjoying Its Privileges
I claim to believe in liberty, equality, and fraternity. And I live here.
My heroine Mélanie says these words to her mentor and former lover Raoul in Secrets of a Lady, surrounded by the surrounded by the Siena marble, intricate fretwork, and Aubusson carpet of her elegant Berkeley Square library. Pam had a wonderful post a couple of weeks ago which got me thinking about Mélanie’s words. Pam wrote about the conundrum of being “deeply egalitarian in my attitudes toward social, political, and economic matters” and yet writing “in a genre that centers itself upon the pleasures and pursuits of the Regency ton.”
These days, it's difficult not to think about economic matters. And for those of us who write predominantly about aristocrats, the contrast is perhaps sharper than ever. The 1930s romantic comedies I loved as a child were a big influence on me as a writer. So many of those stories (Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, My Man Godfrey among others) take place in a rarefied world of cocktail parties and dinner dances, weekends in the country and engraved cards of invitation). In many ways it's a fairytale world of escapism with black tie and glamorous gowns and cocktails on the terrace. And yet the darker side of the Depression era is not out of sight. My Man Godfrey begins with the madcap society girl heroine on a scavenger hunt from which she brings back the "forgotten man" hero and makes him the family butler. The hero, Godfrey, turns out to have a more complicated past than meets the eye, one which brings the story back to the whole ever-present question of "forgotten men."
In Holiday, the hero, a young, self-made man, wants to take a holiday and "come back and work when he knows what he's working for" to the horror of his socialite fiancée and her Wall Street father (but the delight of his fiancée's sister). In The Philadelphia Story (which remains one of my all time favorite movies and plays), a left-wing reporter assigned (to his disgust) to cover a society wedding, goes to write about "the privileged class enjoying its privileges" (writing this post, it occurred to me that Bow Street Runner Jeremy Roth in my books probably owes something to Mike Connor; both view the privileged class with a jaundiced eye). In the course of a midsummer night both Mike and the heiress bride-to-be Tracy Lord re-evaluate their attitudes toward social class as well as the nature of love and morality.
My mom, who grew up during the Depression, introduced me to these movies (in the days before vcrs and dvds, we often went to old movie revival houses). My mom was also a lifelong liberal with a strong sense of social justice. As I wrote in response to Pam’s post, “I absorbed strongly egalitarian values from my mom, who also introduced me to Georgette Heyer [and Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and other writers who's books are largely set in a rarefied and aristocratic world] and took me out for tea and with whom I started writing Regency romances. Even our first book, The Widow’s Gambit, which was very 'London Season,' had scenes set in the darker side of the Regency world. Exploring that darker side is something I’ve done more and more through the years. But there’s no denying my central characters live a very elite privileged existence.” And in my own life, though I certainly don’t live in Charles and Mélanie’s elite world, I confess I’m a political, social, and economic liberal who also enjoys the opera and nice restaurants and has a weakness for designer labels (usually purchased at 70% off :-).
In my books, Mélanie in a sense confronts the same paradox. She married her aristocratic husband Charles Fraser (diplomat, politician, duke's grandson) because she was working for a cause that opposed everything his world stands for. She realizes her marriage had catapulted her neatly over an artificial and quite unconscionable social divide. And yet she thinks in Secrets of a Lady that the longer one played a role, the more natural it became. She had grown all too comfortable with the privileges she had married into. It’s a conundrum she continues to wrestle with. In fact, I think she’ll confront it more in future books, when her past and ideals aren’t so buried.Mélanie's conflict mirrors a number of my own conflicting feelings as an author who writes about a very privileged set of people. I love reading (and writing) about balls and gowns and country house parties and social intrigue. But I’m also fascinated by the contrast between the “Silver Fork” world and it’s darker, more Dickensian side. When I blogged about this topic on my own website, Stephanie commented, "It’s not an easy line to tread. Because I enjoy reading about 'the glitter and the gold' in historical romance, yet few things raise my hackles more quickly than a hero or heroine born at the top of the food chain and carrying around a whopping sense of entitlement....Maybe the difference between an obnoxious versus a sympathetic member of the elite has to do with how they 'wear' power. Do they wear it expecting lesser beings to tug their forelocks and kowtow? Or do they wear it more lightly, understanding that, as people born to wealth and station, they might have something of a duty to those less fortunate than themselves? I suspect that Regency–and for that matter, Victorian–society had plenty of people occupying both ends of the spectrum."
That range of attitudesgives writers a lot of leeway in how portray characters. Think of the difference between Anne Elliot’s self-absorbed father and elder sister in Persuasion versus Darcy who has a strong sense of the duty that comes with his position. Or the way Emma's attitudes change over the course of her namesake book. When my mom first introduced me to Emma, she compared Emma Woodhouse to Tracy Lord. Austen may not write about climbing boys and the stews of St Giles, but she does a brilliant job of showing the plight of women without a fortune without anyone lecturing about it.
And writing about the powerful, doesn't necessarily mean ignoring social realities. As Taryn commented on my blog, "power, well-used, is very attractive, and mis-used is intriguing as a force to be feared."
As writer Mike Connor says to Tracy Lord, "With the rich and mighty, always a little patience."