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01 July 2009

Infidelity - the dark side of romance?

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It’s at the heart of the conflict in Casablanca, Tristan & Isolde, The English Patient, Anna Karenina, Notorious, Brief Encounter, The Painted Veil, and countless classic love stories. And yet for many readers, it’s a deal-breaker, particularly when it comes to genre romance.

As a reader and a writer, I don’t dislike infidelity or adultery plots per say. Infidelity is an uncomfortable subject but uncomfortable subjects can make for good drama. It can definitely be a challenge to give a story a happy ending after someone’s been unfaithful. Of all of the stories I mentioned at the start of the post, only Notorious has a conventional happily-ever-after ending. The others have unhappy or bittersweet endings. If the marriage survives the infidelity, you need to believe that the couple can get past it, that it won’t happen again, that the betrayed partner won’t constantly blame the unfaithful partner (which is pretty mucht he conversation Steve and Miranda have with their marriage counselor in the recent Sex & the City movie). If the unfaithful lovers end up together, one can find oneself sympathizing with the betrayed spouse. Notorious pulls it off by making the spouse a villain, albeit a complex one who genuinely loves his wife. Although when I posted about this topic on my own website recently, Lesley pointed out that "In classic fiction, it seems that adultery by a woman is punishable by death (Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary), but from the C20th this is less often the case (Lady Chatterley for instance)." but from the C20th this is less often the case (Lady Chatterley for instance)."

Of course the terms of the marriage and the expectations go into it affect the level of betrayal. In my historical romance, Rightfully His, there’s a subplot between the heroine’s sister and her husband who have a society marriage in which both have lovers and they get along quite amiably. However, in the course of the book, they realize that they love each other and the terms of their marriage change.

Lesley brought up the Poldark novels (the tv series based on them), in the course of which both Ross and Demelza are unfaithful and yet ultimately they get past the betrayals. "In the Poldark novels, the repercussions of both Ross and Demelza’s infidelities echo for many years, continuing to put strain on what is otherwise a strong and loving marriage. With a long series covering many years, there is plenty of scope for a writer to work through the issues raised." Stephanie added, "While I don’t think two wrongs make a right, I couldn’t help feeling a glimmer of satisfaction that Ross finally got to experience a bit of what his wife had endured for years, during his obsession with Elizabeth." I have to say, I felt much the same.

Both the hero and heroine in Pam's wonderful The Slightest Provocation have been unfaithful when the story begins with them married but estranged. It gives them a lot of past baggage to work through but it also means they start with the scales, in a sense, balanced.

Lesley also mentioned Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolò series: "I know many readers couldn’t forgive Gelis in the House of Niccolo books, and felt that the reasons given for her behaviour weren’t sufficient to justify her actions." Some of the most spirited Dunnett discussions I've been involved in concern readers differing views of Gelis. Personally, I had issues with the House of Niccolò in the end (while at the start, I liked it better than the Lymond Chronicles) but not because of Gelis. I could understand why she did what she did, and I could believe she and Nicholas got past it. (Though ultimately, when everyone’s motivations were revealed, it all got a bit murky.)

I write about betrayal a lot, so when I write about infidelity, I like to explore how it compares and contrasts to other types of betrayal. In Secrets of a Lady Mélanie has undeniably betrayed Charles in a number of ways, but I deliberately left it ambiguous as to whether or not she committed adultery. I actually was explicit about it in an earlier draft of the book, then decided I wasn’t sure myself so I left it open to question. I figured out the answer for myself a bit later, and at some point, when appropriate, I’ll work it into a subsequent book.

They do confront the issue of infidelity and their different expectations going into marriage, in a scene in the as yet unpublished The Mask of Night:

You didn’t intend to be faithful when you married me.”

She regarded him with that scouring honesty with which she confronted uncomfortable questions. “No, I didn’t. But then I’d never hold my own behavior up as a model of anything.” She smoothed a crease from her skirt. “Did you? Intend to be faithful?”

“Yes, as it happens. But it was hardly as though I had a very active career to abandon.”

“And you take your promises seriously.” In the warm wash of candlelight, Mélanie’s gaze had the bruised look he remembered from last night. “Fidelity hasn’t been a word in my vocabulary for a long time. It might have been once. When I was a girl playing Juliet in my father’s theatre company. Before—”

“Everything else.” Before she’d been raped by a gang of British soldiers, seen her father and sister killed, been left penniless and homeless.

“Being raped was the least of it,” she said, in the low, rough voice he’d learned to recognize from moments when she dredged up long-buried truths. “I could have got past that, I think. It was losing everyone I cared about, fighting for survival. I had to claw my way back to a sense of purpose. When I did, so much I’d used to value didn’t make sense anymore.”

“There’s more than one kind of fidelity, Mel. You’ve been remarkably faithful to a number of things.”

Her gaze fastened on his face. “Charles, you know that I—“

He looked into the scarred, beautiful eyes from which he’d never been able to hide things. He found he didn’t want a declaration based on duty or guilt. “I know you,” he said.

How do you feel about infidelity in books? Is it a deal-breaker? If not, what you think makes it work in some stories? Does it make a difference whether it’s the hero or the heroine who is unfaithful? What the terms of the marriage are? Whether it’s a story about a couple overcoming one or both partners’ infidelity or the story of a pair of unfaithful lovers? Oh, and if you've read Secrets, do you think Mélanie was unfaithful to Charles after they married? Why or why not?

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12 Comments:

Blogger Erastes said...

I find it amusing and rather idiotic when people say "i'll stop reading if there's unfaithfulness" because as a writer it's ready made conflict. It needs to be dealt with, though - and have the characters deal with the implications and it needs to help reveal character, but really. It happens and it will always do so! excellent article.

2:33 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Both the hero and heroine in Pam's wonderful The Slightest Provocation have been unfaithful when the story begins with them married but estranged. It gives them a lot of past baggage to work through but it also means they start with the scales, in a sense, balanced.

Adultery is not a deal-breaker for me in a romance if the book is about the couple reconciling had having a second chance (and if I believe that the motivations that led to the infidelity are also in the past . . .). Pam’s TSP worked for me. Eloisa James has a book where the hero has been living with his mistress for years but makes a conscious decision to go back and work things out with his wife. Totally worked for me.

I do have to say it works better for me when both parties have behaved badly though. I’m not a big fan of martyrs or pattern cards of perfection. As Mojo Nixon says Everybody’s got a little bit of Elvis in them (except Michael J. Fox). I want to see that “Elvis”.

As for Mélanie? No, I don’t think she ever cheated on Charles. She has her own internal sense of honor, and it seems to me that’s a line she wouldn’t cross. Not because she thinks it wrong, but because she knows Charles thinks so, and God love her, she really is trying to be loyal to him in all the small domestic ways (though in the larger scheme of things, she’s was still working against his side). As to why she might not be explicit about it? I think that’s simply a part of her contrary and secretive nature. She doesn’t like revealing too much, or admitting to anything she doesn’t have to (even to deny it). And since that very trait has probably kept her alive more than once, she’s come to trust and depend upon it.


I find it amusing and rather idiotic when people say "i'll stop reading if there's unfaithfulness" because as a writer it's ready made conflict.

I’m sure some readers feel EXACTLY this way, but for me (and I’m talking strictly about genre romance here) it’s about when in the timeline of our story does it take place and what motivated it. In the past, no problem. During the actual course of the story? I have a bit more trouble with that . . . but the right author (I’m looking at you, Pam) could pull it off.

7:36 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I like what Kalen has to say about Mélanie and her sense of honor, the subtle counterpoints of political and marital loyalties. But without rereading the text carefully (and I read it a while ago, as Daughter of the Game) I'm not quite sure.

As for infidelity in the actual course of the story -- well, in The Slightest Provocation there's a brief period between Kit and Mary's youthful and histrionic betrayals of each other and their reconciliation, when they each have lovers. It's much less pyrotechnic and buried in an internal monologue, but I like it when Kit remembers his solution to the problem:

...to rage against her infidelities (as he called them —- his affairs of course being only affairs) on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, while reserving the majority of the week (four days was the majority, was it not?) for a measure of toleration, and to congratulate himself on his liberality in this, late at night, with the Baroness curled against his flank in satisfied slumber.

9:05 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I agree, Erastes--infidelity is perhaps one of the strongest conflicts a romantic relationship can face, which is why it's a staple of so many classic love stories (there's a great line in S.N. Behrman's play "No Time for Comedy," in which the hero, who writes romantic comedies, calls what he does "squaring the triangle").

Kalen, I too prefer both partners to have strayed than for one to be a martyr. I agree for a happy ending I need to believe the lovers can get past the infidelity (assuming we're talking about a story concerning a couple who are unfaithful to each other, rather than a story about adulterous lovers). I think it's easier to pull off if the infidelity is in the past, but I like you I also think the right author could pull it off in the present. Definitely a challenge, but I like challenges, as a reader and a writer. I definitely think Pam could :-). She does in a sense in TSP by showing scenes from the past intermixed with the present.

Pam, I love the bit about Kit you quoted.

Wonderful analysis of Mélanie, Kalen, and I think you're spot on about why she doesn't tend to reveal anything she doesn't have to. Playing devil's advocate, I would point out that when they first married her whole conception of what the marriage was was very different. And "fidelity" as she says in the bit I quote "wasn't a word in her vocabulary."

9:33 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Playing devil's advocate, I would point out that when they first married her whole conception of what the marriage was was very different. And "fidelity" as she says in the bit I quote "wasn't a word in her vocabulary."

Oh, I'll grant that she could have (and may have; I guess time and future books will tell), but the motivation--had she done so--I think would have been her loyalty to her country/cause, and not so much about looking for love/sex outside her marriage (“real” infidelity, if you know what I mean). If she did, I think she’d be highly motivated now to keep Charles from ever finding out (esp if was with the father of her child; that whole dynamic is already red hot and ready to explode).

I need to reread these . . .

11:12 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

In fiction, in fantasy, I quite like imagining the loved object being desired by others. Kit and the baroness being a case in point (and probably a borrowing, say an homage, to romantic spy James Nathanson and the blonde bitch baroness in Nita Abrams's The Spy's Bride).

11:17 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I agree, Kalen. If she did, it would have been for calculated reasons, or some sort of overwhelming situation not straying because she was looking for love or sex. As I said in the post, Mel tends to be quite pragmatic about sex. As to the rather of her child, I rather think he'd have had even more reason to avoid it than Mel would, given that he knew more of the circumstances at that point.

Interesting point, Pam. I do think "other women" and "other men" can be fascinating characters. I haven't read "The Spy's Bride"--will add it to my TBR list.

2:53 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Excellent post, Tracy.

Because I write historical fiction (and not historical romance), and that's what I tend to read as well, I have no problem with adultery/infidelity in the story as part of the plotline, or as backstory for any of the characters. In some of my own historical fiction that centers on real life figures (like Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson in TOO GREAT A LADY, for example) their adulterous liaison (and how it impacts their own lives, their respective spouses and the outside world) is an integral part of the novel.

In my view Emma and Nelson were soul mates although both of them were extremely conflicted. She did love Sir William Hamilton very much. Nelson, however, was convinced that there was nothing he owed to his wife Fanny but duty. Yet, he felt beholden to duty above all else when it came to his career, if not to his personal life.

In ALL FOR LOVE, Mary Robinson was married under pressure from her mother to a man who turned out to be a real rapscallion and cheated on her openly with some low-life women -- opera dances, prostitutes, etc. Of course when Mary took lovers, even when one of them happened to be the Prince of Wales, she was vilified for her adultery.

As a writer, I'm not constrained by certain expectations of Romance so I write about real-life adulterous relationships and would likely write about fictional ones as well; I certainly wouldn't avoid writing about infidelity.

And as a reader, I like a good story, well told, with pace and dramatic tension, and with complex characters whose actions and emotions are justified. As for the plot--I'll leave that to the author.

6:54 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

I'm personally having a hideous time with my late 19th century WIP, in which my heroine gets a British divorce. Essentially, she has to publicly plead guilty to adultery which she's physically innocent of. Her ex-husband is the villain; if he pleads guilty to adultery, his mistress will not be received in society after he marries her.

The layers of emotional baggage my heroine chooses to carry are immense. Portraying this (including her motivations) feels like one of the biggest characterization challenges I've ever taken on, because she's so far out of the norm for a genre heroine.

7:50 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Amanda, Nelson and Emma are a fascinating example. You wrote about their conflicting feelings beautifully in "Too Great a Lady." I think the different reasons they were both conflicted about breaking their marriage vows are particularly interesting.

Diane, your book sounds fascinating. The divorce laws that required one spouse to divorce the other, naming a lover, were very difficult on those involved but make for all sorts of fascinating literary complications.

12:56 AM  
Blogger Joanna Waugh said...

One author who manages to carry it off is Eloisa James in her duchesses series. The infidelity between Jemma and Elijah occurred off-stage and years ago. It isn't ongoing, but they continue to live separate lives. The conflict is heightened by the fact Elijah's best friend, Villiers, is trying to seduce Jemma away from her husband.

6:19 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for posting, Joanna! I haven't read the duchesses series yet, but I've heard great things about it. I think past (or for that matter present) infidelity and separate lives is a very interesting set-up for a Georgian or Regency married couple, because it seems to true many of the real historical couples one reads about.

10:55 AM  

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