Loretta Chase


There’s a fascinating discussion going on at All About Romance just now about prostitute and courtesan heroines. It sent me back to a post I wrote here a couple of years ago and then reworked for History Hoydens. I thought this would be a good time to repost the reworked History Hoydens version. It’s especially timely as it hits on some issues I’ve been dealing with in Imperial Scandal (I’m finishing up the revisions over the weekend) where Suzanne/Mélanie’s past comes into play more.

[Spoiler warning: if you’ve only read Vienna Waltz and/or Beneath a Silent Moon, this post contains some spoilers].

There’s been a lot of discussion on e-lists I’m on and blogs and message boards lately about Your Scandalous Ways by Loretta Chase. I love Loretta Chase’s writing. I haven’t read this book yet, but I’m very much looking forward to it (update note: I’ve since read it and loved it; great characters, both with complicated, compromised pasts, and a compelling love story). Going back to a couple of recent posts on my own website posts about Deal-Breakers (things that keep one from even trying a book or make one put it down unfinished) and Deal-Makers (things that make one seek a book out), it combines two of my deal-makers–spies and and an experienced heroine. Francesca, the heroine of Your Scandalous Ways, is a divorced woman who’s become a courtesan (the book is set in Venice in the 1820s).

And that’s been the source of much of the discussion about the book. Some readers find the idea of a courtesan as a heroine wonderfully refreshing. Others are disturbed by the idea of a heroine who had sex for money. Some have suggested the a courtesan heroine glamorizes prostitution. Others have pointed out that there’s a world of difference between a prostitute walking the streets or working in a brothel and a courtesan. Both may have sex for their livelihood, but a courtesan had far more control over her life and her person. She might have sex for money, but she could choose who she slept with. In fact it could be argued that she had more control over who she went to bed with than a married woman did in the early nineteenth century. In Beneath a Silent Moon, Mélanie/Suzanne says to Charles/Malcolm:

“Legally you can take whatever you want from me.”

“That’s barbaric.”

“That’s marriage.”

“Not our marriage.”

No, it isn’t their marriage, but that’s thanks to the man Charles is. Legally Mélanie had more control over whom she slept with when she was a spy using her favors for information than she does as a married woman.

The courtesan heroine is almost an operatic staple, from Traviata to La Bohème (Mimi and Musetta both have wealthy protectors at various points in the story) to La Rondine.

Violetta celebrates the freedom of her life as a courtesan in “Sempre Libere”. Magda’s “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” in La Rondine plays on another paradox of the courtesan heroine. A courtesan is a sophisticated woman of the world who has had a number of lovers, yet though she has had the freedom to choose her lovers, there’s an economic element to all of them. She may never have actually been in love. In a sense, she’s the literary female counterpart to the rakish hero whose heart has remained untouched. Of course, rakish heroes get happy endings far more often than courtesan heroines. I was going to say that none of the love affairs end happily in La Traviata, La Rondine, and La Bohème, but in fact, Musetta and Marcello are back together at the end of La Bohème. One can argue, given their history, over how long it will last, but the romantic in me likes to think they’ve learned something and it will.

Back to my own books, Mélanie/Suzanne was never a courtesan precisely. She was a prostitute, an experience she revisits in Imperial Scandal in light of another character who’s both a prostitute and a spy, and also when she and Charles/Malcolm go to a brothel seeking information in Secrets of a Lady. It’s clear, I think, that her time in the brothel was fairly horrific. As she thinks in Secrets, In the past ten years she had known anger and fear and self-hatred. But since Raoul O’Roarke had taken her out of the door of the brothel in Léon, she had rarely felt powerless. It was one of the reasons she would be forever grateful to him. Later, though she didn’t sleep with men for money, she did so for information. I think it’s fair to say her feelings about this part of her life and about sex in general are more complicated. As she says to Charles in The Mask of Night:

“It can’t always be sublime communion, Charles. Not for me. It’s been too many other things. A tool. A weapon. A defense. An escape.” She pulled her dressing gown tight about her. “I told you once that my acting abilities deserted me in the bedchamber. That was true when I was in the brothel. I was too young to put on more than a crude show. But later– Sometimes it was sordid. Sometimes it was mechanical. But sometimes—slipping into a fictional skin, making love to someone for the night, knowing it’s just that night. There’s no freedom quite like it.”

Mélanie/Suzanne, however, is not an experienced woman who’s romantically untouched until she meets Charles/Malcolm. She was in love with Raoul up to when she met Charles and overlapping with her falling in love (against her better judgment) with her husband (those feelings are still present, if transmuted, in Imperial Scandal). That was a plot element I had in place very early in my planning of the book, before I had all the elements of the Charles/Melanie/Raoul triangle worked out. I hadn’t thought of it until I wrote this post, but I wonder now if I was subconsciously reacted against the archetype of the experienced heroine whose heart remains untouched until she meets the hero.

What do you think of courtesan heroines? Deal-maker, deal-breaker or neither? Any interesting examples to recommend? Do you view courtesan heroines differently from heroines who’ve had sexual experiences but not for financial reasons? Do you view courtesan heroines differently from heroines who’ve been prostitutes or who’ve been spies and slept with men for information? Does it make a difference to you if the heroine has or hasn’t been in love before she meets the hero?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence letter is from Isobel Lydgate to her brother David about the rumors in England about Charles/Malcolm and Princess Tatiana.

There’s something about summer that seems to call out for lazy afternoons burrowing into books by the pool, on the beach, or simply in a favorite armchair. My summer is anything but lazy, thanks to my involvement with the Merola Opera Program (a summer training program for opera singers, pianists/coaches, and stage directors), but I have been finding some reading time. I thought this would be a fun week to post some reading recommendations.

Your Scandalous Ways
by Loretta Chase

I finally had a chance to read this, and I loved it. It combines so many of my favorite elements in a book–intrigue, espionage, a heroine with a past, a hero with his own emotional baggage, witty repartee, fascinating secondary characters, a beautifully realized setting (Venice, 1820). I loved the fact that the heroine is not only a courtesan, she’s unapologetic about it. I loved that the spy hero really feels the soul-destroying strain of the business. I loved that Francesca and James seemed so well-matched.

Careless in Red
by Elizabeth George

I’ve been fascinated to see where Elizabeth George would take her series after the recent, audacious plot twist (two books ago, but the last book was in a sense a prequel). I’m currently in the midst of Careless in Red, and completely hooked. It’s equally intriguing to watch Thomas Lynley grapple with recent events and to meet a compelling new set of characters. I find myself staying up far later than I intended, driven by the desire to learn more about these people, what secrets they’re hiding, what drives them, what will happen next.

The Painted Veil
by W. Somerset Maugham
I love stories about married couples, both as a writer and as a reader. There’s so much rich and complex history to explore. The Painted Veil explores the theme in exquisite, heartbreaking detail. Their marriage beset by lies and shattered illusions, Kitty and Walter Fane leave 1920s Hong Kong and journey into the heart of a cholera epidemic.

Possession
by A. S. Byatt
Two modern-day academics investigate a literary mystery involving a secret love affair between two Victorian-era poets. Byatt not only creates vivid, compelling characters in both settings, she wrote the poetry for both her fictional poets. The poetry (each poet has a very different style) is interspersed throughout the book and often contains clues to the mystery. I read this book on a long plane flight, and I was so engrossed in it I wanted the trip to last longer!

Atonement
by Ian McEwan
A haunting, multi-layered book that begins on an English country estate in the 1930s. A thirteen-year-old girl (and aspiring writer) misinterprets her sister’s romance with the the son of one of the family’s servants, with tragic consequences that shatter lives and ripple through World War II and beyond for those involved. It’s a book I thought about for a long time after I read it, because I loved the characters so much and because the book questions the nature and power of what a novel is in a way that fascinated me as a writer. I recently saw the movie and also loved it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that was so close to the images in th my head as I read the book.

The Lymond Chronicles
by Dorothy Dunnett
This is actually a six-book series, but the books are so intertwined its impossible to pick just one. It was also nearly impossible for me to put them down once I started reading. I devoured the books the summer between high school and college, and have reread them many times since. The story begins in 16th-century Scotland and ranges all over the Continent. The fictional characters are so intertwined with real people and events you’d swear it must have happened this way. There’s wild adventure, court intrigue, romance, and at the heart of the series is the mystery of who Francis Crawford of Lymond really is—both the literal mystery of his birth and the tantalizing question of the real man behind the many masks he wears.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice
by Laurie R. King
I was drawn into the world of the Mary Russell series with the first paragraph of this book. Mary Russell literally stumbles across the retired Sherlock Holmes on the Sussex Downs and eventually becomes his apprentice. The mysteries are intriguing, but it’s the complex, evolving relationship between Holmes and Russell that makes me return to this book for frequent rereads and eagerly await each new book in the series.

Gaudy Night
by Dorothy L. Sayers
Gaudy Night is one of my favorite love stories. I love the whole Peter Wimsey series, particularly the books that involve Peter’s relationship with Harriet Vane. That relationship comes to a crisis point in this book. Peter and Harriet investigate a crime during a reunion at Harriet’s college at Oxford, while Harriet struggles with the risks of love and the dangers of passion and Peter realizes there will be no going back from whatever choice she makes about the course of their relationship.

Mortal Sins
by Penelope Williamson
A violent crime brings Lieutenant Daman Rourke face to face with his lost love, Remy Lelourie, now a silent film star and possibly a murderess. The story twists and turns through a dark, vivid, wonderfully realized 1920s New Orleans. The characters are compelling, the writing lush and lyrical, and the plot full of page-turning surprises.

Freedom and Necessity
by Steven Brust and Emma Bull
I keep talking about this book. Breakneck adventure, intrigue worthy of a chess match, page-turning mystery, and heart-stopping romance. There’s a brilliant hero on the run, an intrepid heroine, and a tangle of conspiracies, both personal and political. Set in England in 1849 and told in letters, this is one of my favorite books ever.

What’s on your summer reading list? Any recommendations to share? Any thoughts on the books I’ve mentioned?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is again from Raoul in the aftermath of Kenneth Fraser’s death. One letter to Charles, another to Mélanie.

There’s been a lot of discussion on books e-lists I’m on and blogs and message boards I visit about a new historical romance, Your Scandalous Ways by Loretta Chase. I love Loretta Chase’s writing. I haven’t read this book yet, but I’m very much looking forward to it. Going back to my posts about Deal-Breakers and Deal-Makers, it combines two of my deal-makers–spies and and an experienced heroine. Francesca, the heroine of Your Scandalous Ways, is a divorced woman who’s become a courtesan (the book is set in Venice in the 1820s).

And that’s been the source of much of the discussion about the book. Some readers find the idea of a courtesan as a heroine wonderfully refreshing. Others are disturbed by the idea of a heroine who had sex for money. Some have suggested the a courtesan heroine glamorizes prostitution. Others have pointed out that there’s a world of difference between a prostitute walking the streets or working in a brothel and a courtesan. Both may have sex for their livelihood, but a courtesan had far more control over her life and her person. She might have sex for money, but she could choose who she slept with. In fact it could be argued that she had more control over who she went to bed with than a married woman did in the early nineteenth century. As Mélanie says to Charles at one point in Beneath a Silent Moon,

“Legally you can take whatever you want from me.”

“That’s barbaric.”

“That’s marriage.”

“Not our marriage.”

No, it isn’t their marriage, but that’s thanks to the man Charles is. Legally Mélanie had more control over whom she slept with when she was a spy using her favors for information than she does as a married woman.

The courtesan heroine has a long literary tradition. La Dame aux Camelias/Camille/La Traviata. The courtesan heroine is almost an operatic staple, from Traviata to La Bohème (Mimi and Musetta both have wealthy protectors at various points in the story) to La Rondine.

Violetta celebrates the freedom of her life as a courtesan in Sempre Libere. Magda’s Chi il bel sogno di Doretta in La Rondine plays on another paradox of the courtesan heroine. A courtesan is a sophisticated woman of the world who has had a number of lovers, yet though she has had the freedom to choose her lovers, there’s an economic element to all of them. She may never have actually been in love. In a sense, she’s the literary female counterpart to the rakish hero whose heart has remained untouched. Of course, as I blogged about in my Fallen Heroines post, rakish heroes get happy endings far more often than courtesan heroines. I was going to say that none of the love affairs end happily in La Traviata, La Rondine, and La Bohème, but in fact, Musetta and Marcello are back together at the end of La Bohème. One can argue, given their history, over how long it will last, but the romantic in me likes to think they’ve learned something and it will.

Back to my own books, Mélanie was never a courtesan precisely. She was a prostitute, an experience she revisits when she and Charles go to a brothel seeking information in Secrets of a Lady. It’s clear, I think, that her time in the brothel was fairly horrific. As she thinks in Secrets, In the past ten years she had known anger and fear and self-hatred. But since Raoul O’Roarke had taken her out of the door of the brothel in Léon, she had rarely felt powerless. It was one of the reasons she would be forever grateful to him. Later, though she didn’t sleep with men for money, she did so for information. I think it’s fair to say her feelings about this part of her life and about sex in general are more complicated. As she says to Charles in The Mask of Night:

“It can’t always be sublime communion, Charles. Not for me. It’s been too many other things. A tool. A weapon. A defense. An escape.” She pulled her dressing gown tight about her. “I told you once that my acting abilities deserted me in the bedchamber. That was true when I was in the brothel. I was too young to put on more than a crude show. But later– Sometimes it was sordid. Sometimes it was mechanical. But sometimes—slipping into a fictional skin, making love to someone for the night, knowing it’s just that night. There’s no freedom quite like it.”

Mélanie, however, is not an experienced woman who’s romantically untouched until she meets Charles. She was in love with Raoul up to when she met Charles and overlapping with her falling in love (against her better judgment) with her husband. That was a plot element I had in place very early in my planning of the book, before I had all the elements of the Charles/Melanie/Raoul triangle worked out. I hadn’t thought of it until I wrote this post, but I wonder now if I was subconsciously reacted against the archetype of the experienced heroine whose heart remains untouched until she meets the hero.

What do you think of courtesan heroines? Deal-maker, deal-breaker or neither? Any interesting examples to recommend? Do you view courtesan heroines differently from heroines who’ve had sexual experiences but not for financial reasons? Do you view courtesan heroines differently from heroines who’ve been prostitutes or who’ve slept with men for information? Does it make a difference to you if the heroine has or hasn’t been in love before she meets the hero?

For the Fraser Correspondence this week, I’ve moved ahead to after the events of Beneath a Silent Moon, which means the letters are in the same time frame as the A+ section in Beneath. This week’s letter is from a woman who’s never been a courtesan but has certainly been a mistress, Aspasia Newland.

Now I’m off to buy Your Scandalous Ways.

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