A Little Night Music


Last week I did a post-Valentine’s blog on History Hoydens that I thought I’d repeat here for those who missed it. I like to do a romantic moments blog around Valentine’s Day. This year I thought I’d focus on moments where a happy ending for the couple in question seems an impossibility. Sometimes they are the ending to a story. Sometimes they are the bleak moment before a triumphant ending. Either way, they can be intensely romantic, despite or perhaps because of the edge of sorrow.

My examples are mostly historical and come from novels, films, and a Broadway musical.

Venetia by Georgette Heyer. Damerel sending Venetia away for her own good. I feel a heart tug every time I read about him throwing her up into the saddle for the last time. Much as I want to shake Damerel, there’s something that always gets me about a guy trying to be noble.

Atonement by Ian McEwan. Cecilia running after Robbie and embracing him before the police take him away. The fact that she stands by him against the seeming evidence, against her family, against the pressures of class prejudice stunned me the first time I read the book and stunned me the film version as well.

The Silicon Mage by Barbara Hambly. Antryg saying farewell to Joanna before sending her off to her own world, both of them fully expecting him to die. There’s a lovely restraint to the scene which makes the words all the more powerful.

The Empire Strikes Back by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, based on a story by George Lucas. Princess Leia saying farewell to Han Solo before he’s frozen in carbonite (“I love you.”/”I know.”). I was talking about this scene to a friend over dinner on Valentine’s Day. The moment my thirteen-year-old self fell in love with Han Solo/Harrison Ford. I still remember sitting with my parents in a restaurant afterwards and saying “It’s so unfair we have to wait so long to find out what happens next.”

“Send in the Clowns”, A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler. Desirée’s song captures the poignancy of the moment when love seems lost, wry irony with a wealth of pain underneath.

Casablanca by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch, based on a play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Rick putting Ilsa on the plane. I can’t think of another scene that is at once so poignant and so satisfyingly right.

Shakespeare in Love by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman. Will and Viola saying goodbye. I find this scene much more painful than the end of Casablanca. And yet there’s the power of the fact that you can already see Will beginning to think about writing again and you see Viola’s will to go on.

The Temptation of the Night Jasmine by Lauren Willig. Robert sending Charlotte away for her own good. Like the scene in Venetia, this one brings a lump to my throat. But unlike Damerel, who simply thinks he’s too tainted to make Venetia happy, Robert is caught in a dangerous web he really can’t tell Charlotte about. Fortunately for both of them, the intrepid Charlotte unravels things on her own.

Any examples of your own to add? What makes this type of scene work or not work for you? Writers, do you find these scenes harder or easier to write than happy love scenes?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is David’s reply to Simon’s letter of a couple of weeks ago about his visit to his family in the north of England.

A lot of my writer friends have been away this week at the Romance Writers of America National Conference, this year in Washington D.C. I’ve been enjoying their updates on Twitter. Thanks to Twitter, I knew almost immediately last night that my friend and fellow History Hoyden, Pam Rosenthal, had won RWA’s Rita award for Best Historical Romance for her wonderful The Edge of Impropriety.

One of the things I love about Pam’s writing is that her characters have, in Regency terms, “a keen understanding”–they’re brainy people who enjoy talking about ideas (The Edge of Impropriety’s hero and heroine are a classical scholar nd a Silver Fork novelist respectively). Another blog by Jean on the All About Romance blog this week on “The Beautiful Minds of Heroes” got me thinking about this more.

The first brilliant hero Jean mentions falling in love with is Sherlock Holmes. I confess I discovered Sherlock Holmes first through dramatizations (notably the fabulous Jeremy Brett series). I didn’t actually read the Arthur Conan Doyle stories until I discovered Laurie King’s Russell & Holmes books. Because much as I love brainy characters on their own, I particularly love intellectual and romantic partnerships between two exceptionally brilliant people. There’s the fun of watching two fine minds click, especially over solving a problem. I love the scenes of Russell and Holmes talking through a case. The same is true of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, and I’m particularly fond of a scene in Have His Carcase where they break a code together. Mulder and Scully’s debates about science and paranormal phenomenon were one of the delights of The X-Files.

There’s also the inevitable clash of two people who love to think. As Miss de Vine says to Harriet in Gaudy Night, “A marriage of two independent and equally irritable intelligences seems to me reckless to the point of insanity. You can hurt one another so dreadfully.” That’s certainly true of Peter and Harriet and also of Holmes and Russell and Mulder and Scully. In all three cases, a determination to battle a problem through intellectually and a refusal to open up emotionally can leave the other partner feeling shut out. Peter in Busman’s Honeymoon, Holmes in The Language of Bees, Scully battling her cancer, Mulder coping with family revelations.

I love writing about brainy characters. The intellectual debates, the fun with words, the angst of clashing minds. In theory, at least, Mélanie, Charles, and Raoul are all brilliant. Of course, that means the author has to keep up with them, which is sometimes a challenge :-).

Do you like reading about brainy characters? Do you like them paired with a partner of equal brilliance? Any interesting examples to suggest? Writers, do you like writing about brainy characters? What are the challenges?

Mélanie’s mind is more on matters frivolous than intellectual in this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition, as she writes to Isobel Lydgate about the masked ball at the Hofburg that opened the Congress of Vienna.

As a postscript, going back to last week’s post, I’m listening to Sondheim’s A Little Night Music as I write this. Speaking of characters who talk about books and ideas, I love Frederick’s catalogue of books as he tries to figure out how to get Anne into bed, particularly “Stendal would ruin the plan of attack as there isn’t much blue in the red and the black.”

Jean had a wonderful post on the AAR blog this week about Stephen Sondheim. I’ve been playing Sondheim CDs ever since (though I often play Sondheim). The post also reminded me of how much Sondheim has influenced me as a writer.

My first exposure to Sondheim (in addition to the lyrics to West Side Story) was when the national tour of the original Broadway production of A Little Night Music came to San Francisco when I was eight. loved it–an historical setting, pretty clothes, and lots of love stories with happy endings (and a whole lot of irony I slowly began to appreciate as I got older). And music I adored even then. We had the record, and I learned all the songs. To this day, I remember the words (probably because I still play the score all the time, now on CD). Not too long ago, a friend commented that he couldn’t catch all the words to “A Weekend in the Country” at a concert. I remember being vaguely surprised that anyone didn’t simply know the word to a “A Weekend in the Country.”

I saw Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George (both of which I later saw on stage) and a concert version of Follies on PBS, saw the national tour of Into the Woods, listened to the score of Company (which I still haven’t seen, though I know most of the songs). Then I was in New York for the RWA (Romance Writers of America) National Conference the season Passion opened on Broadway. I was organizing the theater tickets for my friend and fellow writer Penny Williamson and me. I got tickets to Passion, but I was a little nervous about what she’d think of it because it’s so *not* a typical Broadway musical (imo, a lot of Sondheim borders on opera for musical complexity). We both loved it.

I love listening to Sondheim when I write. His lyrics are so witty and his music is so rich and complex. Both music and lyrics delineate character so brilliantly. As I’ve mentioned before, my starting place for Beneath a Silent Moon was the final scene between Charles and Mélanie. I had that in mind before I plotted the rest of the book. Part of my inspiration was the final scene between Peter and Harriet in Busman’s Honeyroom. My other inspiration was Sondheim’s “Being Alive” from Company, a wonderful ode to the wonder and terror of sharing one’s life with another person. I had that song running through my head when I wrote the scene. I also think, though I didn’t realize it until I saw the recent movie, that the song “No Place Like London” from Sweeney Todd helped inspire the prologue to Beneath. And just a few days ago, listening to Passion, I realized what was missing from a scene that had been giving me trouble.

Who else is a Sondheim fan? What are your favorites of his songs and musicals? Writers, are there particular songs (by any composer) that have inspired scenes or characters? Readers, do you find yourself reading a book and thinking that a particular song fits a particular scene?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Raoul to Mélanie with some advice about how to handle Talleyrand and Tsar Alexander.

Yesterday I had a few friends over to celebrate midsummer–A Midsummer Night’s Dream party (what’s more fun than a party with a Shakespearean theme?). Rushing around doing party prep during the day, I was listening to Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (one of my favorite musicals), and I found myself thinking about the allure of stories set on midsummer nights.

Shakespeare created a brilliant template with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Under a midsummer moon, lovers find and lose each other, friends become enemies and back again, lines are blurred between classes and between fairies and mortals. Until recently, I didn’t realize how much one of my favorite plays and movies, The Philadelphia Story, owes to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There’s the estranged/divorced married couple, the pre-wedding setting, the characters falling in love (and blurring class lines) under influence of a mind-altering drug, whether it’s the juice of a rare flower or Pommery champagne. Philip Barry even sets the play on midsummer night and explicitly refers to it by having Tracy’s younger sister Dinah say “it’s supposed to be the longest day of the year or something” (to which Tracy, coping with the escalating complications of her wedding day, replies, “I wouldn’t doubt it for a minute.”).

Then there’s A Little Night Music and the movie upon which it is based, Ingmar Bergman’s exquisite Smiles of a Summer Night. Once again lovers change partners beneath a midsummer moon (beautifully evoked by a waltz among birch trees in the opening of A Little Night Music). But while the majority of the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Philadelphia Story end up back with their original partner (Demetrius being a notable exception) in A Little Night Music/Smiles of a Summer Night, the majority of the lovers change partners and end the story with the new partner. One might say that the events of the night help Frederik recover from the madness of his love for his child-bride Anne and back to his far more real love for his former mistress Desirée. “A coherent existence,” as Desirée puts it. Frederik, like The Philadelphia Story’s Tracy Lord, finds his eyes opened in the course of a midsummer night’s adventures.

Beneath a Silent Moon
offers my own take on the midsummer night theme. I actually scoured A Midsummer Night’s Dream for quotes when looking for a title. for the book but couldn’t find one my publisher and I agreed on. I love Beneath a Silent Moon as a title (it was a suggestion of my agent, Nancy Yost) because while it isn’t a quote, to me it conjures up the moon imagery which is so prevalent in Dream. Perhaps not surprisingly, my version of midsummer madness includes lots of spies, smugglers, and secret meetings beneath a silent moon. But the elements are still there. Lovers find and lose each other, partners change, old loves are rekindled. Lovers and lunatics seem not so very far apart. “Love isn’t sensible,” Quen tells his former lover. “Love’s a fire that can’t be contained. Until it burns itself out.”

Writing this blog post, I realized Beneath a Silent Moon even offers it’s own dark twist on theme of a wedding party. Charles and Mélanie aren’t precisely estranged, but they are certainly struggling to define the dynamics of their marriage. And there’s a birch coppice which serves at the setting for midnight adventures, my own homage to the birch wood in A Little Night Music.

At the end of the book, Mélanie thinks, somewhat ironically, of the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Jack shall have Jill; Nought shall go ill. I think that Charles, like Tracy and Frederick and Titania waking from enchantment, finds his eyes opened in the course of the story.

Do you like stories with midsummer settings? Any thoughts on the one’s I’ve mentioned? Any new examples to add? This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is Gisèle’s take on midsummer madness, in a letter to her cousin Aline (Lady Frances’s daughter, married to Geoffrey Blackwell).

Also, all this week I have the honor of being Guest Author on Candice Hern’s wonderful message boards. Do stop by and chat (I have a dread of being the guest author no one asks questions of :-).

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