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25 February 2009

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."

How do you feel about power and privilege in the novels you read? Do you prefer to read about characters living an elite and aristocratic life? Do you like to see the dark side of that life or escape in to the fairy tale? Does it make a difference whether the story is set in the past or the present day? Does the current economic situation make you yearn for escapism or make you want stories more grounded in economic reality? Or both?

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10 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

From Tracy Grant to Tracy Lord -- and you mentioned 2 of my all-time favorite movies: "The Philadelphia Story" and "Holiday."

I am drawn to those films because they are stories that are well told with characters I can care about; and that's why it doesn't matter to me what social caste is featured in a novel (or film) as long as I get a terrific (and period-accurate, where applicable) story peopled with complex, multidimensional characters for whom I can summon the requisite amount of sympathy. In the films you mentioned, Tracy, the "rich and mighty" (one of my favorite movie lines ever) characters we're supposed to be rooting for learn something and grow: in the case of the films you referred to, it's most often discovering what it means to care about someone other than themselves, a universal lesson that is eminently relatable.

The wealthy and privileged characters depicted are behaving totally in character the entire time, but they grow; their character takes a journey, which should be the case in all good writing. And because along the way they learn a powerful lesson, about themselves and about the world they live in, then we care about them and want them to succeed, find love -- and even stay rich!

However, I have no interest in or patience for novels where the author feels compelled to have her privileged heroine do something that would be PC by 21st c. standards (like traipse alone to a dicey neighborhood and volunteer at a soup kitchen).

5:15 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Totally agree, Amanda--the privileged characters grow and learn things in all three movies, which in all three cases involves an awareness of the world outside their privileged cocoon (which is also true for Emma). And in all cases the characters' interaction with the wider world is integral to the story.

8:38 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Does the current economic situation make you yearn for escapism or make you want stories more grounded in economic reality? Or both?

Most definitely both, Tracy -- and to the farthest, most creative extent our genre (and others) can support.

Thanks too, not only for citing my post, but for continuing the thread. I love feeling that there's a real conversation spiraling out there in cyberspace. And in the same spirit of love for what's possible in genre entertainment, check out my friend Jeff Weinstein's blog post (a full year ago!) -- a prescient and elegant hymn of praise to Joan Blondell and Busby Berkeley's "Gold Diggers of 1933".

9:58 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I love the way one blog can inspire another and create a cyberspace dialogue among readers and writers, Pam. It's a fabulous way to share and explore ideas.

1:43 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

A friend of a friend once said (I think it was in reference to Melrose Place; yes, I’m dating myself here, LOL!): Oh no, the rich, pretty people are in trouble again! Whenever I read or see something about characters that I just can't connect with, I hear that line run though my head . . . I think this is one of the reasons that I was never big on Chicklit or Sex in the City. I just don’t care about people whose biggest worry is which pair of $800 shoes to wear (or how to obtain said shoes).

The Philadelphia Story + Holiday + Bringing up Baby = a perfect day on the sofa. I own them all on DVD. But the key to them all is that the characters transcend, they grow, they’re interesting. You want them to succeed.

I do think it telling that in times of financial crisis, stories about the privileged gain luster and followings. People want to escape. They want to be swept away from the worries of the real world. Hence Wodehouse, Sayers, Heyer, the Thin Man movies (man do I love those!!!), the success of The Real Housewives series.

2:25 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

You've named some of my favorite films of all time here, Tracy. The kind of stories that never grow old. Add Guess Who's Coming to Dinner to the mix - the original version, of course.

I like a story about the "haves" gaining a conscience, a wider view of the world once they are exposed to the "have nots."

In tough times I appreciate the escape historical romance offers not just from this time, but from those economic worries that plague us all.

Sometimes it isn't the rich and pretty that is the problem. Sometimes it is what rich and pretty decides to DO, that makes me dismiss them as a waste of material.

5:59 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Kalen, I love "Bringing Up Baby" as well--I didn't mention it because it doesn't seem so exclusively about a privileged set, though Susan is certainly a society girl. I suspect you're right about stories about privilege gaining lustre in a financial crisis. I wonder, though, if they tend to more be stories about I like a story about "the 'haves' gaining a conscience, a wider view of the world once they are exposed to the 'have nots.'" as Louisa says. Most of the 1930s romantic comedies I could think have fit that mold.

I have to say I love "Sex and the City"--but to me those characters grow and change over the arc of the series. And while admittedly part of what I love about the series is the clothes :-), the characters actually do think (and talk) quite a bit about weightier issues.

9:12 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Louisa, I so agree about "Sometimes it isn't the rich and pretty that is the problem. Sometimes it is what rich and pretty decides to DO, that makes me dismiss them as a waste of material."

While like Amanda I can find "do gooding" behavior that seems transplanted from the 21st century jarring, I also wouldn’t feel much sympathy for a hero or heroine who turned a completely blind eye to suffering (at least not for the entire length of the book).

9:15 PM  
Blogger Evangeline said...

Oh Tracy, a woman after my own heart. I've been watching and loving screwball comedies from the 30s and 40s for the past 18 months and it has indeed influenced my writing. But I find myself unable to not write about the seamier, less privileged side of life.

I've been toying with a plot set aboard the Titanic for over a year, but have felt unable to commit myself to it because focusing on the voyage of those in first class and ignoring the second, third and steerage classes seems wrong. After devouring umpteen books on the ocean liner and its sinking, I feel pretty "connected" to all the passengers aboard, from Madeline Astor to the Sage family to the Lebanese immigrants who spoke no English.

It's a fine line to tread, which is why I love screwball comedies: to avoid being preachy, they depended on that universal element: humor. And since we're talking about old Hollywood movies, a very, very timely movie I've just watched and highly recommend is Romance In Manhattan with Ginger Rogers. It's a romantic movie with a message that left me with tears in my eyes at its conclusion.

4:56 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Evangeline, I find it hard to avoid the darker side of life in my writing too. With something like the Titanic, where the ship was such a compressed microcosm of society, I think it would be particularly hard to ignore anyone group.

I do love the way 30s and 40s comedies deal with a surprising number of social issues without getting preachy. I haven't heard of "Romance in Manhattan"--must rent it!

6:00 PM  

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