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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

11 September 2009

Sex and (the historical) Sensibility: Sickness, Seaside, Seduction

In my last post, I wrote about needing to know about Regency boating attire. And how the good advice I got from generous colleagues in the romance writing biz helped me develop the boating scene I was writing.

Which scene happily led to The Seduction Scene by the Sea.

Mutual seduction, let me add, a good time being had by all including the author.

Because I'm not the kind of romance writer who's given to protest that she writes the hot stuff purely in the Service of Plot and Character Development and at great personal cost to herself. Erotic writing, as I always stress in the Writing the Hot Historical workshops Janet Mullany and give from time to time, ought to be its own reward. While also, of course, carrying with it the feeling of its historically understood world, quite as fully as any other scene in the novel.

My own shorthand for thinking this way is that while you probably need to get some of characters' clothes off (in this case, the boating costume I worked so hard to put together), you don't want to ignore the constraints and complexities of authentic period underwear.

Or the constraints and complexities of a period's assumptions and beliefs -- many of which I've been happily learning on a website Kalen recommended to me during the discussion of beach attire (and of which I've recently become a Facebook fan). The Jane Austen Society of Australia offers a wonderful set of discussions of Jane Austen "at the seaside": reports of talks recently given to the Society, both about Austen's own travels to English seaside resorts, and about how the various venues figure in her work.

Reading these discussions (as well as one important source, Roger Sales's book Jane Austen and Representations of Regency England), I felt once again the pleasure of researching historical romance: the discovery of everyday meanings in earlier times, of assumptions and associations we wouldn't make now, but which were only common sense then.

As in the title of this post. Sickness, seaside, and seduction are not a set of categories I would have thought to link together (as Sales does in his chapter on Emma). But the more I considered it, the more sense it made.

Of course we know that the state of medical science was pretty primitive. No antibiotics to kill germs -- well, there was no germ theory of disease. We sometimes finesse this in our romance novels by imagining a wise herbalist, often a woman, who can cure this or that via the natural antibodies in this or that leaf or twig.

And doubtless there were such healers. But in the main, this was a society that knew a great deal of invalidism, whose middle and upper classes built a holiday culture of health resorts based upon dubious therapeutic regimens, and whose popular imagination held some highly romanticized views of disease -- particularly of tuberculosis, or (as it was so evocatively called) consumption, with the hectic flush, the wasting, the heightened sensitivity the popular culture attributed to it.

Jane Austen, who had a hypochondriac for a mother, wasn't much for romanticizing disease. What we remember instead are her tyrannical or comically passive-aggressive semi-invalids like Mr. Woodhouse and Mrs. Churchill of Emma. Nor do we find much about consumption -- perhaps because the creator of popular romance fiction had her own wonderfully complex and highly ambivalent views of the romantic sensibility (qua Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility and Captain Benwick languishing over Byron in Persuasion); or because this most poetical of nineteenth century conditions was perhaps more readily seen as a disease of urban bohemians and the demimonde.

But consumption does lurk (at least in memory) along the sunny country lanes of Emma's Highbury. Jane Fairfax's mother (née the younger Miss Bates) died of it (along with grief for her husband killed in battle) when Jane was three. Miss Bates never speaks of it, but I think I hear the worry behind her voice every time Jane shows sign of catching a cold. And though it's ultimately impossible to prove a literary point by its absence, it makes sense to me that the threat is simply too real and too frightening for even Miss Bates to chatter about.

What people do chatter about in Highbury, and of course at length, is what they eat, how they keep warm and dry, whether or not to take the sea air at the coast, and which of the resorts along the coasts to frequent. Jane Austen wasn't much for the culture of inland watering places -- some of her finest satire is reserved for the manners and customs at Bath (we're ready to think the worst of the wife Mr. Elton finds there even before he introduces her to the citizens of Highbury).

But Austen did enjoy sea bathing, via the curious contrivance of bathing-machines, closed carriages in which you changed into bathing attire, were pulled into the sea, opened the doors, and were helped into the water by "dippers" employed for that purpose. One of the most delightful pages at the JASA site discusses this activity in detail. I've linked to some of the illustrations, and urge you to check out the discussion itself.

And how nice, given the state of medical science, that such a pleasant set of pseudo-therapies developed. During the Regency, those who could afford it went to watering places for a wide variety of illnesses; it seems to me they drank mineral water or plunged into the sea for just about everything -- in Emma, Jane Fairfax's guardian Colonel Campbell goes to Weymouth in hope of a cure for deafness; one hopes he had a good time anyway.

For Bath and Brighton, Weymouth and Ramsgate became a great deal more than health resorts -- and it's certainly not surprising that resorts originally devoted to physical culture would also come to be places of sociability, sexual license, and perhaps even a whiff of exotic foreignness.

The Prince Regent built his pavilion at Brighton. And Brighton was where Wickham successfully seduced Lydia Bennet, after failing to have his way with Georgiana Darcy at Ramsgate. Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill became secretly engaged at Weymouth. According to Roger Sales, "watering places were among the favored refuges for French émigrés during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars." Mr. Knightley, that staunchest defender of English values, worries that Frank Churchill may be bringing French manners to Highbury, when he tells Emma that "your amiable young man can be amiable only in French, not in English."

Clearly, as Sales points out, Emma is built around a struggle between the values of Frank's looser, Frenchified, watering-place morals and the "true" Englishness of Mr. Knightley's squire-archical Highbury Village. And yet, as Sales also reminds us, when Mr. Knightley and Emma (who up until now has never even seen the sea) do take their honeymoon journey, it's for two weeks at the seaside.

All of which makes me want to travel to Brighton, to Weymouth, even to Chesil Beach, site of Ian McEwan's achingly sad and beautiful novel (an anti-romance, I think, that comes awfully close to romance in a strange and compelling way).

Have any of you traveled on the English coast? Where shall I go?

And (with a nod to Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor, which got me thinking about consumption): how many literary and artistic consumptives can you list, from Mimi in La Bohème to Keats and Kafka?

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26 Comments:

Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a wonderful, thought-provoking post, Pam! I'm reminded that the term "watering place romance" was often used as today we'd use "vacation romance" or "summer romance."

As to literary consumptives--Marguerite Gaultier/Violetta Valery in La Dame aux Camelias/La Traviata (who was based on a real-life courtesan who was the mistress not only of Dumas but of Liszt). Not to mention Satine in Moulin Rouge, who is obviously inspired by Mimì and Violetta.

And for real-life examples, I'd add Chopin.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Wonderfully witty and informative post as always, Pam, but I would expect no less from a Rita award winning author. I DO so love to say that!

Having sung both Mimi and Violetta I am always struck by the dichotomy of two such consumptive women having the lung-capacity to sing those arias. Those of us who performed together constantly made fun of the idea. Our favorite however was Desdemona singing while Otello strangled her.

I spent a great deal of time on the coast of England as we were stationed in Suffolk for three years when I was a child. I recently found some great photos of my brothers and me playing in the surf at Claxton on Sea. I would also highly recommend a trip to Dunwich, the city that fell into the sea. It is worth the trip just to soak in all of that Gothic atmosphere. A photograph of the area inspired my GH finalist manuscript.

Dover is another place I highly recommend. The view alone from the cliffs is staggering and very romantic!

11:47 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Oh yeah, Tracy, Chopin. And Satine in Moulin Rouge too. We love that movie, tho many don't. I just giggled all the way thru -- when people ask if I think they'll like it, I say, "well, if you think you'd like to see Toulouse-Lautrec played by John Leguizamo..."

And speaking of giggling, Louisa: two such consumptive women having the lung-capacity to sing those arias! LOL and thanks for the travel recommendations.

Another famous literary consumptive is, of course, Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain

1:04 PM  
Anonymous Maryan said...

For what it's worth, Pam, "Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters," in which the Dashwood sisters have tentacles nipping at their heels, hits the stores on 15 Sept. The blurb on the back hypes that "only the swiftest swimmers will find true love!"

6:09 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

"Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters," -- totally weird imo.

Also Richard Carstone in Bleak House -- consumptive, not weird.

8:33 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Also Lydia in "Love for Lydia" by H.E. Bates (which was on Masterpiece Theatre years ago, but I've actually read the book as well :-). She recovers from consumption.

In one of my historical romances, "Shadows of the Heart", the hero's mother had died of consumption. She was supposed to be a Marguerite/Violetta type.

And back to real-life consumptive artists, Keats and Chekhov.

12:03 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Dora in "David Copperfield." Beth in "Little Women." Ralph Touchett in "The Portrait of a Lady."

12:18 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Chekhov? I didn't know that. Pity.

I've never read Uncle Tom's Cabin, but Sontag says Little Eva dies of consumption.

6:59 AM  
Blogger Margaret Evans Porter said...

I feel very much at home in Weymouth--and neighbouring Dorchester, from when came my husband's people, and both of near enough to Lyme Regis, with its Austen connection, as well as The French Lieutenant's Woman. Wandering Chesil Beach is, for me, a religious experience, besides being utterly fascinating geologically. Southampton is impossibly large and sprawling, Portsmouth less so and has the advantage of Nelson's Victory, well worth touring. Brighton is a happening place (the Pavilion is worth seeing but quite surreal, imo) plus it's a centre for Britain's gay culture (after London, of course). I was at school in Exeter and spent much time in Plymouth (not too far). Darmouth is quite a treat, one of my favourite south coast places. North Devon's coast is also recommended...Lynton and Lynmouth.

Some of my people come from coastal Suffolk and Norfolk, is entirely different from the South Coast, and equally beloved. At Waxham-on-Sea I can stand inside an ancient ancestral church and hear the same constant wind blowing eastwards across the North Sea that my ancestors would've known.

Whatever coastal places you visit, you'll be glad!

10:18 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Chekhov died at 44 tragically. When I played Masha in "The Three Sisters" in college, I remember reading letters Chekhov has written to his wife while she playing the role. He was out of Moscow, I think for his health. He died at Badenweiler, a German spa town.

10:20 AM  
Anonymous Janet Mullany said...

Coming in late as usual. Great post, Pam--I love the way you tie everything together. I thoroughly recommend Brighton, which I visited earlier this year and was lucky enough to get a tour of the Regency Town House.

As for famous consumptives, there's always George Orwell, and I do wonder about the wasting away of David Copperfield's first wife Dora so he can marry the truly awful Agnes (Dickens' women are such aggravating disappointments). On the other hand there was also the theory that masturbation could lead to a fading away and untimely death. I read somewhere, and as usual I can't remember, that sufferers from what might have been lukemia were sometimes cruelly pointed out as victims of illicit sexual behavior.

Which leads one naturally to the somewhat icky literary tradition that mixes the symptoms of TB with female sexuality--the heightened color, rapid breathing etc. It's pretty much a constant in Dumas' Lady of the Camellias. I recommend a fascinating collection of writing on Dumas, Verdi et al "Violetta and her Sisters" ed. Nicholas John.

Both of my maternal grandparents died of TB in the late 1930s-early 1940s. It was the disease of poverty and despair.

And as a bit of self-pimping, my current WIP is set in Bath, where officers of the occupying French army gather for R&R and discuss the functions of their livers while taking the waters.

12:19 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Margaret, what a wonderful set of place recommendations. Lyme Regis should have been part of my post -- for the Austen associations and The French Lieutenant's Woman, just as you say. I imagine kind of a literary pilgrimage -- Brighton to Lyme, and then into Hardy country.

But I've got to admit that your description of Waxham-on-Sea where I can stand inside an ancient ancestral church and hear the same constant wind blowing eastwards across the North Sea that my ancestors would've known is most appealing as well.

Two trips, perhaps. Thanks so much.

2:34 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for the commendation re tying stuff together, Janet. That's after lots of blue-penciling, trying to bring in Pauline Kael's comment about Antonioni and others' "come as the sick soul of Europe" movies. Try as I would, I couldn't quite imagine Mr. Woodhouse dying in Venice on a beach chair next to Herr Aschenbach's.

Oh, another literary consumptive as well as Dickens' icky Dora: Millie Theale in The Wings of the Dove.

As for TB -- it was the disease of poverty, despair, and the bacillus mycobacterium tuberculosis. Sontag is fascinating (and furious) on why it became thought of as the poetic disease. When she wrote the book, in the 1970s, cancer (which she'd been recently diagnosed with) was still considered a rather shameful disease, associated with various kinds of bad emotional hygiene. And her thesis is that when we are helpless to cure a disease, strange and unhelpful mythologies often spring up around it.

2:49 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

And I didn't know about Orwell, Tracy.

2:50 PM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I was just about to mention Millie Pam before I read your comment. Funny how all the Bronte sisters alo died of consumption. And of course, Violetta/Camille is based on the real courtesan Marie du Plessis who died of consumption. Robert Louis Stevenson also suffered from consumption as well. And didn't D.H. Lawrence? Poor Vivien Leigh not only was bi-polar but also had TB as well.

9:14 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Re the Brontes, Elizabeth -- I think my husband read somewhere that what made them ill was the sepsis beneath Haworth Parsonage.

Oh yes, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

10:56 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Pam, I'm finally getting around to reading your brilliant post after a weekend spent up to my eyeballs writing my chapter for ROYAL PAINS on Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria.

Have you read The Watsons, Austen's unfinished (and quite satirical) take on the entire seaside resort/bathing industry? It's quite wonderful. If she'd only survived the effects of Addision's Disease (as many scholars surmise killed her) for a few more months, we might have had the completed manuscript.

I hadn't thought about TB in Austen, tending to think of the way it rears its ugly head in Victorian novels, but I think you make a very valid point about the unspoken undercurrents. Perhaps what's not there within the text is just as significant as what's there; we are given certain cues to read not between, but beneath the lines.

6:14 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for the kind words, Amanda, and hope all has gone well with the prince. I haven't read The Watsons, but I am reading Austen's Sanditon right now -- and it is about a seaside resort, and I marked this wonderful passage:

He held it indeed as certain, that no person could be really well, no person (however upheld for the present by fortuitous aids of exercise and spirits in a semblance of health) could be really in a state of secure and permanent health without spending at least six weeks by the sea every year. -- The sea air and sea bathing together were nearly infallible, one or the other of them being a match for every disorder, of the stomach, the lungs or the blood; they were anti-spasmodic, anti-pulmonary, anti-septic, anti-bilious and anti-rheumatic. Nobody could catch cold by the sea, nobody wanted appetite by the sea, nobody wanted spirits, nobody wanted strength. They were healing, softening, relating -- fortifying and bracing -- seemingly just as was wanted...

11:29 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Eek -- maybe it was Sanditon I was thinking of! It's been a while since I've revisited the Austen oeuvre for research purposes. In any case, why am I not remotely surprised that you immediately found what I referenced, however incorrectly!

P.S. The prince's chapter is 42pp in first draft form. Since I've been given a strict word count this time around, if the length of Rudolf, so to speak, is any indication, I'm getting the sense that ROYAL PAINS will cover fewer individual royals than my previous titles in the series.

5:46 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

You've got me intrigued, Amanda -- why do you think the royal pains take more writing than marriages or affairs?

And I'm with you in your grief for the Austen books we might have had. Jane Austen died at 42, while her hypochondriac mother lived on another decade or so (though I will say in the mother's defense that bearing and raising 8 children with never quite enough money couldn't have helped her general well-being).

As for Sanditon, it's not only about a health spa, but about investing money in real estate. I haven't finished what there is of it, but it seems very much a novel rather than a romance novel -- and very much about the changing world Austen saw about her.

But then I'm not of the party that likes to claim Jane Austen solely as a romance writer.

It would have been enough for one all-too-short life that she wrote the greatest romance novel ever written while simultaneously inventing the modern novel as we know it. But my view is that being wise enough to understand that Pride and Prejudice marked a kind of apogee of that endeavor, and she went on in the final three books to explore a wide variety of topics, largely having to do with people coming to maturity within groups, communities, and various situations in life.

Yes, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion have marriage plots, but more for shape and closure, I believe, than as their main points.

All of which goes to my own belief that genre and literary fiction -- opposed as they are in some ways -- are also profoundly intertwined at their roots.

(Which is a great deal more than I intended to say when I woke up this morning and found your interesting post!)

7:57 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Pam, being an historical fiction writer myself, I'm not one who claims Austen as a romance writer either -- not only "solely" as a romance writer, but not as a romance writer at all! Late 20th and 21st c. writers can lob tomatoes at my head (they're full of healthy lycopene, so I don't mind) ... but "Romance" with a capital R is a genre that is a recent construct and implies a recognizable formula. Austen's novels contain a good deal more than a marriage at the end or a HEA. Would Shakespeare's comedies, if novelized, be considered "Romance" novels. I wonder.

I daresay the Romance writers who claim her as one of their own are either endeavoring to "legitimize" their fiction in a genre that continues to be disdained (especially when a given novel rigidly or unoriginally adheres to the prescribed formula), or to explain the sort of books they write to the uninitiated.

I love the hoydens' minds and books precisely because they are so original, and time after time turn a genre that is the literary equivalent of a "Happy Meal" into a magnificent and delectable banquet.

As far as ROYAL PAINS goes, I think the chapters are turning out to be longer than they were for the other two books because I am focusing on the entire life span of a given person, with as much weight given to each phase of his or her life, rather than summarizing or condensing the aspects of their lives that were not germane to their marriages or love affairs.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

"Romance" with a capital R is a genre that is a recent construct and implies a recognizable formula.

I prefer to trace that "recognizable formula" back to second century Greece (as my hero did in The Edge of Impropriety, in accordance with my reading of Anne Carson's Eros: The Bittersweet).

But I'm with you about all that too-much-protesting going on in this biz -- not to speak of oceans of ink spilled and bandwidth clogged with wearying self-justification and faux genre populism. So needless, imo -- when the point is simply (simply!) to write one's smartest and best, to try to get at what's so durable and also delightful about that formula.

What do others think?

10:31 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I forgot to mention, Pam, re: one of your other questions about the English coast ... I have been to Brighton, of course, and to Plymouth. And Devon is absolutely lovely, with its chain forts, temperate weather and charming walks; a lovely coastal town.

I long to go to Cornwall and Penzance and Land's End!

1:52 PM  
Blogger Eigon said...

I'm sure one of the minor characters in North and South by Mrs Gaskell dies of TB, after a period of saintly suffering.

For the seaside, Whitby has a rather nice beach, with the possibility of finding ammonites and other fossils, and jet (the symbol of St Hilda of Whitby is an ammonite, which is supposed to be a snake she turned into stone - it's not only St Patrick who had a thing about snakes!). And there's the abbey up on the cliff top, too - and all the Goths connecting with their inner Bram Stoker (who lived there, and/or wrote some of Dracula there).

I grew up going to Blackpool, on the other side of the Pennines, every summer, which was the working class holiday resort for all the mill workers from Manchester and surrounding region. I haven't been back for years, but I have happy memories of the donkeys on the beach, and Pablo's Italian ice cream, and lots of slot machine arcades - and the Tower looming over it all.

12:01 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Whitby, with its Dracula sites, would definitely be a wonderful English destination. Thanks, Eigon.

9:20 AM  
Anonymous Kaite said...

Oh, interesting! And also incredibly useful for my PhD ;)

9:36 AM  

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