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12 May 2010

Rivals & Brothers


San Francisco Opera’s season last fall opened with a fabulous production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore. I was lucky enough to see it three times (the final dress rehearsal, a simulcast at ATT ballpark, and the closing performance). The production updated the setting from medieval Spain to the Peninsular War, which of course I loved. The Goya-inspired setting fit well with a story of war, divided families, and one atrocity leading to another.

At the heart of Trovatore’s tangled, over-the-top plot are two brothers, separated at birth, now unknown to each other fighting for opposite sides and rivals for the love of the same woman. Watching the opera, I found myself thinking about brothers in literature. A topic which was also on my mind watching tonight's episode of Lost. Sibling relationships are fascinating, but in historically set stories, inheritance can make the the rivalry between brothers particularly intense. Perhaps especially so in British-set historical stories because of the laws of inheritance. Among the aristocracy the eldest son inherits the title and estates, while younger sons may at best receive a secondary property of their mother’s and in many cases have to make their own way in the world as soldiers, ministers, or barristers. In As You Like It, Orlando is living as a servant on the dubious charity of his elder brother Oliver who has inherited all the family lands and fortune.

Questions of legitimacy can further complicate this rivalry. In King Lear, the Duke of Gloucester’s illegitimate son Edmund sets out to destroy his legitimate brother Edgar, driven by the pent up jealousy of watching his brother be heir to their father’s lands and title due to the fact that Edgar’s mother was married to the duke while Edmund was born on the wrong side of the blanket.

The issues grow even more tangled when an acknowledged son and heir may actually be illegitimate. The rivalry between Lymond and Richard runs through Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles (including one of the best literary sword fights I’ve ever read in The Game of Kings). At the heart of that rivalry is competition for parental affection and the family estates, and the question of who is who’s son, who deserves what, who is loved best. What makes rivalry between brothers particularly interesting is that it tends to be mixed, as in Lymond and Richard’s case, with strong love that goes back to the cradle.

I think I had Lymond and Richard in mind when I created Charles and Edgar in Secrets of Lady. I know I was thinking of Edmund and Edgar, because I deliberately named my Edgar after the legitimate brother from Lear. I decided quite early on in the plotting process, over lattes with my friend Penny, that Charles was illegitimate, that Edgar knew this and Charles didn’t, and that part of Edgar’s motivation stemmed from feeling that everything Charles had inherited should rightfully be his. I also knew I wanted the bond between the brothers to be strong, so that Edgar’s betrayal would be a particularly intense blow to Charles (poor Charles gets betrayed a great deal).

Beneath a Silent Moon features another pair of brothers in Quen and Val. There’s a rivalry between them that their father has encouraged. Charles tells Mel about the boys trying to scale the Old Tower at Dunmykel when they were children. But I found as I wrote the book that, despite the fact that much of Val’s behavior is appalling, the relationship between the two brothers was more complex and had more affection in it than I had at first envisioned. Quen and Val’s relationship is also clouded by questions of legitimacy as the story progresses. I think that one of the reasons I write about legitimacy and illegitimacy in so many books is that so much of the social order among British aristocrats was build on birth. So that questions about legitimacy can strike at the very foundations of that world (foundations which Edgar, in particular, takes very seriously).

In Beneath a Silent Moon, the reader doesn’t see Val react to the revelations about Quen’s birth, but in the letters I wrote for the trade edition, Quen writes to Aspasia that Val said their father “wouldn’t do violence to himself–Talbots have too strong a sense of self-preservation, as we both should know. I pointed out that I’m apparently not a Talbot, as I had explained to him before we left Scotland. Val shot me one of his looks and said I’d been raised as one, I couldn’t escape the legacy.” Val handles the revelation of his elder brother’s illegitimacy better than Edgar. But then, for all his faults, I think Val has more ambiguity tolerance than Edgar.

Do you like stories about brothers? What are some favorites? Writers, do you enjoy writing about brothers as rivals?

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16 Comments:

Blogger Jane O said...

An old favorite that certainly fits the theme of rival brothers is Dumas' THE CORSICAN BROTHERS. (I must confess, however, that my real fondness is for the movie version with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.)

6:58 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I've been exploring this a lot lately too. Since my new series is all about younger sons, I have to understand what the relationship is with the family and older brother (though in the first book the real conflict is between the younger brother and his cousin, the "adopted" son, who feels he's not been treated properly). It's been lots of fun and I think it adds depth to the books and to the heroes.

I love the brotherly conflict in the Lymond books (I have GOT to reread those!), and in yours, Tracy. I also think Heyer did interesting things with brothers (and siblings in general).

7:28 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Jane, I haven't read "The Corsican Brothers" or seen the movie (sounds very intriguing!). But I did think of "The Man in the Iron Mask" when I wrote this post.

9:50 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Kalen, the brother issues in your new series must be fascinating. I too love what Heyer does with siblings. I recently reread "An Infamous Army" and one of the things I noticed is the subtlety with which she draws the relationship between Worth and Charles Audley, who aren't rivals and are each the hero of their own book, but are quite differently people, in part, I think, because of the position they've been born to and raised for.

9:52 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

but are quite different people, in part, I think, because of the position they've been born to and raised for.

I think this is key. Often (not always though) younger sons would have been raised and educated differently than the eldest son, because the expectations were different. This difference would only become more profound as they entered adulthood, where the eldest was likely to spend most of his life waiting in the wings to inherit while the younger ones had to hop-to and make something of themselves (even if given a minor estate on reaching their majority).

In many ways, I think the younger sons (assuming they were given some kind of financial backing/assistance/inheritance) got a much more interesting deal and had a chance for a more interesting and fulfilling life.

When creating my heroes, I have to think about just what they’re DOING with their lives. Are they MPs in the House of Commons? Are they soldiers? Are they farmers? Are they scientists? Are they still hanging on daddy’s sleeve?

10:33 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I totally agree about the younger sons often having a chance for a more interesting life, Kalen (assuming they had financial support of some sort). In one of my mom's and my Anthea Malcolm Regencies, the hero learned he might be illegitimate (a theme I often write about) and wanted his younger brother to have the title and estate (which I know would be difficult to do, but the hero at least had the impulse). The younger brother, who was an archaeologist, traveling all round the world, stated flatly that he didn't want to be Earl of Milverton (though the hero, who had first rebelled against the position, had learned to love it).

I also think about what my heroes are doing with their lives. I write a lot of politicians and diplomats. Since I like to write heroes who are in the House of Commons, I tend to write younger sons or men from untitled families (like Charles).

12:33 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I'm going to have to take you to lunch and pick your brain about politicians and diplomats . . .

2:49 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That would be fun!

3:23 PM  
Blogger librarypat said...

I like stories that are about families and the dynamics involved. As you pointed out, the inheritance laws created conflict and forced sons to live their lives in ways they would not necessarily choose on their own. I can't think of a particular book or series at the moment, but know there have been many where brothers have been pitted against each other. There have been just as many books where the brothers are on good terms and work together.

7:46 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I like stories about family dynamics too, LibraryPat. And you're right, there are powerful stories both where brothers are rivals/enemies and where they are allies. And some like the Lymond Chronicles where they begin as enemies and end as allies.

10:53 PM  
Anonymous LizA said...

While I like many of the story lines involving brothers I am not fond of the secretly illegitimate brother plot, sorry. It mostly stems from the fact that unless the father was really bodily absent, it was next to impossible for someone to really know that they were illegitimate. There might be suspicions and talk, certainly. But proof? It depends on how it is done, of course, and if used well I have nothing against it. However, I have read books were the "father" was convinced that his son was actually his brother's son.... because he also had green eyes or something.... blah. Yes, it can be constructed that the mother did not sleep with her husband at all, but I find that highly unbelievable, esp. in case of the first child. And once two men are involed, there was no way to prove who fathered the child in historical times....

3:30 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

An excellent point, Liz. Absent DNA testing, it was impossible to determine paternity (unless the husband and wife weren't sleeping together as you say) which is why legally a woman's husband was the father of her children. When I've written storylines like that, I've had the husband away around the time of conception (in one case, the "lover" specifically sets out to seduce his friend's wife while his friend is on the Continent). I've also written storylines where the woman is pregnant (with or without the husband's knowledge) when the couple gets married. I think the real historical example of Lord and Lady Holland is fascinating. She was married to someone else, they ran off together, and eventually married after her husband divorced her. But their eldest son was born before they married. So it was their second son who was the heir to the title. Which must have made for fascinating dynamics. I've always thought it would be interesting to do a fictional variant on that situation.

8:40 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Fascinating post, Tracy.

I'm going to suggest that the brother/rival theme (even with its longtime pedigree) might be getting a new lease on life these days, as one of the m/m themes that have begun to fascinate romance writers lately, from chaste solidarity to hot sexuality.

For while Jane Austen never wrote a scene between men where a woman wasn't present (because she'd never seen one), today's romance readers are mad to read them, to imagine them, as (I believe) a way of understanding more about men -- and ultimately about men and women.

3:08 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great point, Pam. I think it's interesting that while focusing on relationships between men (romantic or otherwise) may be a relatively new phenomenon in the romance genre, there are a lot of novels and plays where the relationships between men (brothers, comrades in arms, school fellows, rivals) are central and it's the relationships between men and women that get less attention (even if there is a romantic thread involving a man and a woman). The Three Musketeers, Hotspur & Prince Hal, Huckleberry Finn & Jim, Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson, etc...

12:42 AM  
Anonymous RfP said...

I love ambivalence, including family rivalries (though if they're unleavened by affection, they lose their interest). I'm also intrigued by a rivalry dynamic between hero/heroine. I also find it interesting how families accept a new love interest. As Tracy said, the portrayal of Worth in An Infamous Army is attention-getting. Jo Beverley also writes some intriguing family relationships in which the love interest has to pass muster with the family.

5:37 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I love family dynamics and rivalries too, RfP. And I agree, if the relationship is all rivalry and no affection, it loses the tension that makes those relationships so interesting. I've always liked rival heroes and heroines as well. And you're right, a love interest being integrated into a family can make for fascinating stories. Jo Beverley does do families really well--also, groups of friends, where the friends comment on the love interest. In fact, one of the strong things, I think, about an ongoing series, is one has a group of characters the author and reader know really well who can react to the current story (which in a romance means reacting to and commenting on the developing love story).

9:08 AM  

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