Peter Wimsey


Last Friday I saw an amazing Lohengrin at San Francisco Opera, including a truly fabulous vocal and dramatic performance by Brandon Jovanovich in the title role. With its story of a heroine who must swear never to ask her husband’s name and then begins to wonder who the man who married really is, the plot gave me a lot to think about in terms of the struggles I’m dramatizing for Suzanne and Malcolm. A key scene in the opera is Elsa and Lohengrin’s wedding night. Though it begins with the now iconic wedding march and includes some ravishing music, it is ultimately a confrontation that marks the end of a marriage rather than the consummation of one.

Watching it I thought about other memorable wedding night scenes. Peter and Harriet’s in Busman’s Honeymoon is probably my favorite for emotional resonance, but I was also thinking about stories in which the wedding night veers off from the expected and, as in Lohengrin, takes the couple in a different direction. One that immediately came to mind is Nicholas and Gelis’s wedding night in Scales of Gold in Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series. It contains what is known to Dunnett readers as The Wedding Night Surprise, a much analyzed and debated scene that changes the course of the marriage and the series. (As a side note, Saturday was Dorothy Dunnett Day, and I spent it at lunch with some wonderful Dunnett readers).

For my November teaser it seems appropriate to post a bit from Malcolm and Suzanne’s wedding night from His Spanish Bride (which will be released on November 23). What are some of your favorite wedding night scenes?

I just got some gorgeous coverflats for The Paris Affair, so I’ll give away a signed one to one of this week’s commenters. And check out this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition from Cordelia to Violet.

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Malcolm drew a breath and rapped at the bedchamber door.
“Yes.” His wife’s—his wife’s—voice came from behind the polished panels. “That is, come in.”
He turned the handle. Never had he felt such trepidation at stepping into his own bedchamber.
Suzanne sat on the dressing table bench, wrapped in a dressing gown of seafoam silk. Her dark hair spilled loose over her shoulders, the cropped bits still curled round her face. Her bare feet peeped out from beneath the silk and muslin of her dressing gown and nightdress. He had seen her in dresses that exposed more skin, but something about the déshabille was at once more seductive and more vulnerable than any glimpse he’d had of her before. His throat closed. His mind clamped down on every impulse of his body.
“Do you have everything you need?” His voice sounded thin to his own ears.
“Yes.” Her own voice was like frayed silk. “Addison arranged things perfectly. Though I’m afraid I’ve quite taken over your dressing table.”
Enamel boxes and glass jars clustered on the dressing table top. He wasn’t sure what had become of his shaving kit until he saw it on the chest of drawers. He saw something else beside the chest of drawers. A silver cooler with a bottle of champagne.
“Addison left that for us,” Suzanne said. “A touch of romance I wouldn’t have expected.” She bit her lip as though she wasn’t sure about the word “romance.”
Two crystal glasses stood on the escritoire, sparkling in the light from the brace of candles. Malcolm wasn’t sure whether to thank his valet or groan. He picked up the champagne bottle and opened it, which at least gave him something to do with his hands. He splashed champagne on the dressing table but managed to hand Suzanne a glass without breaking it or spattering champagne on her. He picked up his own glass and touched it to hers. To say “to us” seemed presumptuous when there scarcely was an “us.” Instead he said, “To the future.”
She smiled and took a sip of champagne. He did as well, a rather deeper sip than he intended. “Suzanne—” He retreated to lean against the chest of drawers. “We needn’t— There needn’t be anything between us until after the baby’s born. Or even after that. Not until—not unless you’re ready.”
He more than half-expected her to look away. Instead she met his gaze. Her eyes looked very open. He realized it was because she’d removed the blacking she used to line them and darken her lashes. “You already made that very obliging offer. But we’re married, and I think we should begin as we mean to go on, as it were. “
He took another sip of champagne. His mouth was dry. “What I’m trying to say is you can define how we mean to go on.”
“And what I’m trying to say is that I’d welcome new memories to make the old go away.”

In the comments on last week’s Imperial Scandal teaser with Raoul, Jeanne had some interesting comments about how Raoul feels about Mélanie/Suzanne.

“I want to like Raoul even though he is ruthless. It’s his ruthlessness that gives Melanie her independence and her freedom to be “feral”, “fierce” and “reckless.” He never tries to protect her by restraining her actions. He uses her for those qualities seemingly without hesitation.

“But the common trope in a romance is that, if a good man loves a woman, then he wants to keep her from endangering herself. He may not act on those feelings, he may even recognize the inconsistency between loving her for her strength and wanting to protect her from harm but those protective instincts always seem to arise. So when we are seeing from the good man’s POV, we will eventually hear those thoughts.”

I hadn’t really thought of it in those terms before, but it’s true that Raoul and Mel/Suzette’s whole relationship is built on shared danger. In fact, there’s a scene in Secrets of a Lady where Charles asks why Raoul didn’t protect her, send her somewhere safe, and Mel says something along the lines of “I didn’t want to safe, I wanted to fight.” I think Mel is inclined to see Raoul as a bit more ruthless than he actually is. It’s Charles in Secrets who sees that Raoul is obviously still in love with her, while Mel’s never been sure Raoul loved her.

Jeanne went on to say, “I don’t want to hear Raoul having those thoughts and I was glad to he doesn’t in this scene. I want him to be so ruthless that it never even occurs to him that he should protect her as it doesn’t seem to here. And yet, I want to know that he loves her as we also hear in this scene.

“I don’t think most readers will like Raoul for this, most of them probably won’t even believe he really does love her. But I do. And, at the end of The Mask of Night when Charles asks Raoul to stay because his presence makes Melanie happier, I realized that Charles thinks so too.

“I can think of one other male “romance” character who understood that love doesn’t give a man the right to restrain a woman’s actions in order to protect her. It’s Lord Peter Wimsey in “Gaudy Night”. Somewhere in that book, he and Harriet discuss this and that male protectiveness leads women to deceive men in order to be free of it. I think Melanie and Charles get close to having a similar discussion in The Mask of Night.”

I think the Peter & Harriet parallel is very apt. Peter certainly has times when clearly wants to protect Harriet, yet in Gaudy Night he understands the importance of her being able to run her own risks. Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes struggle with this as well in Laurie King’s books. They have an extraordinarily egalitarian relationship. Yet the scene that ends with them becoming betrothed begins with Holmes hitting Russell over the head and knocking her out so she can’t go with him after the villain. Granted Russell is still recover from being abducted and exposed to heroin at the time. But it becomes part of their marriage negotiations (“I’ll not marry a man I can’t trust at my back.”).

Charles/Malcolm is more definitely inclined to try to protect Mel/Suzette than Raoul is, which she rebels against. Not that he’s overprotective–-she runs a lot of risks at his side from even before they get married. But he slides into what she calls his “Brutus/Hotspur” moments where he tries to protect her or feels guilty because she’s been hurt or put in danger. As she says in Vienna Waltz, “Darling, I knew what you did when I married you. I knew I’d never be able to bear being your wife if it meant sitting on the sidelines or waiting like Penelope to see if you came back alive. If you wanted that sort of wife you shouldn’t have married me, however strong your chivalrous impulses.”

Not that there aren’t moments when Mel/Suzette wants to protect Charles/Malcolm as well. I also think it’s interesting that one of the results of Mel/Suzette marrying Charles/Malcolm is that it puts her in a much safer situation than she’d been in running about Spain. Which I don’t think she considered, but I suspect Raoul did…

Do you equate protectiveness with love? Do you think Raoul loved Mélanie/Suzanne? And does his not trying to protect her make you more or less likely to believe he loves her? What are other literary couples you can think of who struggle with this issue?

I’ve just posed a new Fraser Correspondence letter in which Aline tells Gisèle about her engagement to Geoffrey Blackwell.

Last Wednesday, I blogged on History Hoydens about a favorite topic–The Scarlet Pimpernel. In the lively discussion that followed we debated the merits of various film adaptations and the musical and talked about TSP’s influence on our own work. I was delighted and not surprised to find that several of my fellow Hoydens (as well as others who posted) are TSP fans and that the Pimpernel books have influenced their own writing. I said, “I’m fascinated by how many of us are drawn to The Scarlet Pimpernel stories and particularly how many of us found inspiration from them for our own writing. What do you think it is that so resonates about this story? The masks and deceptions? The adventure and daring escapes? The story of two people desperately in love who fear that they don’t really know/can’t trust the object of their affections? To those of you inspired by the story, which piece of it inspired your own writing?”

The main answer was Percy as a hero. Mary Blayney said, “Tracy for me it’s Percy — a true hero who wants no credit and, in fact, presents himself as a fop. A true leader of men.”

Leslie Carroll added, “Yes, I think that the lasting allure is that Percy is a man who fights with his wits as well as his sword; that he is a gentleman through and through and not a neanderthal, that he has a huge amount of integrity and ethics, passion and patriotism, that he is willing to risk all to save just one life, if need be, that Marguerite has her own profession and life before she met Percy, that she is devoted to and looks out for her brother Armand, that although Percy and Marguerite are first drawn to each other sexually and jump into marriage that they have to really earn the relationship by building trust in each other and that neither realizes how much they have until they have nearly lost it.”

Percy is undoubtedly a fabulous hero who has helped inspire countless other characters (including, I believe, Lord Peter Wimsey and Francis Crawford of Lymond). There’s something so compassionate and intriguing about a hero whose goal is saving people rather than “winning.” But I think what has me coming back to The Scarlet Pimpernel and the sequels and adaptations goes to the last part of Leslie’s comment. I love adventure and intrigue, masks and disguises, but for me a lot of the fascination is that this is a story about a married couple, who both have past experiences, rather the story of young lovers. (I remember as a child seeing the Leslie Howard/Merle Oberon movie–Suzanne appears in the movie before Marguerite, and I was surprised and intrigued that the heroine turned out not be the sweet ingenue but the glamorous, mysterious married woman.) The romantic conflict in The Scarlet Pimpernel centers not on the initial heady rush of falling in love but on issues of trust that come after. On the false impression one can have of one’s beloved in the initial rush of falling in love and the difficulties that false impression can create in building a last relationship.

I didn’t consciously think about it at the time, but I think my very first inspiration for the book that ultimately became Secrets of a Lady was watching the wonderful Anthony Andrews/Jane Seymour adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel. During the wedding scene, when Percy first suspects Marguerite can’t be trusted, I thought “it would be interesting if she *really* was working against him…”

I know a lot of people who read visit my site are TSP fans and a lot of you are writers. What draws you to the stories? Which elements in them have inspired your own writing and how? And if you don’t particularly like TSP, I’d love to hear about the reasons for that too. If you’ve never read the books or seen any of the adaptations, I definitely recommend giving them a try!

Speaking of intrigue and deception and betraying one’s spouse, this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is another coded letter Mélanie writes to Raoul from the Congress of Vienna, about Tsar Alexander paying a surprise call at the British Embassy.

The follow up discussion to my post last week on “Bad Boy” Heroes got me to thinking that in general I don’t like stories where bad boy heroes are reformed by heroines who (in Stephanie’s apt description) are “pure as the driven snow.” A fascinating post by Pam Rosenthal on her blog and and the follow-up discussion got me thinking more along the same lines. Pam was writing about children in romance representing innocence, but the discussion touched on the redemptive arc often found in romantic fiction. I like redemptive arcs, but I much prefer it if the character redeems him or herself, rather than being magically healed by innocence and true love.

So in general I prefer “bad boys” or “bad girls” paired with a lover with some worldly wisdom. But execution can make me love all sorts of stories. Georgette Heyer’s Venetia is one my favorite love stories, despite the fact that it follows a trope I don’t generally care for–jaded, cynical rake tries to seduce and then falls in love with beautiful, sheltered, romantically untouched girl. Of course it helps that Venetia is five-and-twenty and hardly an innocent in her understanding of people whatever her life experience. I think the reason the story works so well for me is that one has a deep sense that Venetia and Dameral are “soul mates” despite their vastly differing life experiences. They share a sense of the absurd, as Stephanie pointed out. They share a love of literature, a disregard for society’s conventions, and a certain innate kindness. There’s a wonderful intimacy between them that’s only partly physical, though interestingly the intellectual intimacy makes the passion between them that much more palpable and intense. Their minds work in a similar way. Reading about them, you can sense that “click” that occurs between two people whose minds are in sync (which, to me, is as romantic as the rush of physical attraction).

That sort of connection combined with sexual attraction is a powerful combination. I like to think that Charles and Mélanie have that sort of mental click in the way their minds work, which is what gives me hope for them despite their differing backgrounds and to some extent differing goals. At least that’s how it is in my head–how well I’ve portrayed it is a different question :-).

A few other fictional couples who to me fit this definition of “soul mates” – Russell & Holmes, Mulder & Scully, Ingold and Gil in the Darwath books and Antryg and Joanna in the Windrose Chronicles (both by Barbara Hambly), Susan and James in Brust & Bull’s Freedom & Necessity, Beatrice & Benedick, Peter Wimsey & Harriet Vane.

How do you define “soul mates” in fiction? Do you like to read or write about characters with this sort of mental intimacy? Other favorite examples to suggest?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Raoul to Mélanie. Speaking of two other people with a mental connection which I don’t think will ever completely go away…

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.

I blogged recently on both Jaunty Quills and History Hoydens about Damaged Characters. By which, as I said, I wasn’t talking about the damage an author can inflict with one too many rounds of revising (though that would make an interesting blog topic in and of itself). I was thinking of characters who are damaged by their past experiences, whether it’s a painful childhood, battlefield trauma, the morally ambiguous life of a spy, or a love affair gone tragically wrong. Which comes down to the focus of this blog–history. Whether it’s real historical events, such as the brutal aftermath of the Siege of Badajoz, or fictional history, such as a lover’s betrayal or parental neglect, the scars of the past create damaged characters. To explore and heal that damage, a writer has to delve into the character’s history.

As a reader and writer, I’ve always been fascinated by history, both real historical events and the history of fictional characters (I love sequels and prequels, seeing characters at different points in their lives, part of what I so enjoyed about the new Star Trek movie). So perhaps it isn’t surprising that a lot of my favorite characters are defined by their pasts. Francis Crawford of Lymond begins his adventures in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles already an outlaw and an attainted traitor, estranged from his family and guilty over his sister’s death. Damerel, the hero of one of my favorite Georgette Heyer novels, Venetia, is a social outcast thanks to the scandals in his past. He’s convinced he’ll make Venetia miserable by dragging her into social ruin if he marries her. Venetia has to go to great (and very entertaining) lengths to convince him otherwise.

Lymond’s past scars, while they involve fictional plot twists, are rooted in the real historical event of the Scottish defeat at the Battle of Solway Moss. Damerel’s damage on the other hand is more personal–a love affair with a married woman, subsequent estrangement from his family, his father’s death in the midst of it. Both Lymond and Damerel are wonderful examples of the classic tortured hero. Both have a complex backstory, which I think is one of the keys to doing tortured characters well (there’s nothing more annoying than a character who’s tortured over a deep dark secret that seems commonplace when revealed). But while traditionally it’s the hero who’s suffered the most emotional damage, I’ve always liked heroines with emotional baggage. Barbara Childe, the edgy, self-destructive heroine from Heyer’s An Infamous Army, is a wonderful example of the type. So is Dorothy Sayers’s Harriet Vane. I know some readers find Harriet too prickly to be sympathetic, but she’s one of my favorite heroines, struggling to come to terms with the past (her lover’s murder, her own trial on charges of killing him) yet refusing to let herself be defined or defeated by it. Of course Peter Wimsey has scars of his own, rooted in historical events–shell shock from World War I. In one of my favorite scenes from Busman’s Honeymoon, it’s Harriet (who begins the series “sick of myself, body and soul”) who comforts Peter. That scene shows the hard-won balance they’ve achieved in their relationship. (That scene also inspired the last scene between Charles and Mel in Beneath a Silent Moon).

It can be particularly interesting when both the hero and heroine have emotional scars. One of the reasons I found The X-Files so compelling for me is that both Mulder and Scully are damaged characters (and of course acquire considerably more emotional baggage as the show goes on :-)). As I’ve blogged about recently, I just read Laurie King’s latest (quite wonderful) Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes book, The Language of Bees. In this series King (who talks about Sayers as an influence and has some wonderful Sayers parallels in books) took Holmes, who has suffered plenty of damage (some shown, some hinted at) in the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories, and paired him with the much younger but equally scarred Russell. One of the delights of the series is watching these two people, who both guard themselves carefully, reveal bits of their scarred pasts to each other and to the reader.

There’s something particularly heartening about two damaged people being able to form a bond. I love the moment in The X-Files episode Requiem (end of the 7th season) where Mulder says to Scully “I don’t want to risk…losing you.” From the way he delivers it and Scully’s reaction, you can tell exactly how much those words mean. The declaration scene in A Monstrous Regiment of Women is one of the most wonderful I have ever read, right among there among my favorites with the Harriet and Peter scene at the end of Gaudy Night). And of course, the bond doesn’t heal all the damage, which makes for interesting developments over a series. The previous book in the series, Locked Rooms, dealt with Russell coming to terms with the events surrounding her family’s death. In The Language of Bees, Holmes comes face to face with the “lovely, lost son” King referred to in a previous book and with a painful past that goes back to Irene Adler. King creates a Holmes who moves believably into the 20th century, yet he is still coming to terms with his past.

It’s perhaps no wonder that as a writer I can be quite merciless in creating histories for my characters that leave them weighed down with emotional baggage. When I first began sketching out notes on Charles & Mélanie, I knew that the secrets of Mélanie’s past would create plenty of angst for both of them. But it never occurred to me to stop there. Before I even had the plot of Secrets of a Lady/Daughter of the Game worked out, I had given Charles a tragic love past affair with Kitty Ashford, an emotionally neglectful childhood, a strained relationship with his brother Edgar, and questions about his legitimacy. While Mélanie had suffered the horrors of the Peninsular War (specifically the carnage inflicted by the British Army during Sir John Moore’s retreat) and lost both her parents and her younger sister Rosie. Quite a bit of that is mentioned or at least alluded to in the first scene between them in Secrets/Daughter. I wanted to show the damage these two people had suffered and the stable marriage they’d managed to build in spite it. To me, that made it all the worse when the very foundations of that marriage are threatened. All of that past damage also provides rich fodder for subsequent books in the series. Charles’s relationship with his family, particularly his father, was the starting place for Beneath a Silent Moon. And there’s lots more to deal with in Mélanie’s past. A llot happened in those years before she met Charles, not to mention the early years of their marriage…

Do you like stories about damaged characters? Do you prefer it to be the hero or the heroine or both to have the emotional scars? Any favorite examples to suggest? Writers, when you create characters do you think about how their past history has defined them? Do you try to work real historical events into their past history?

Speaking of real historical events, this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition continues Charles’s & Mel’s updates from the Congress of Vienna with a letter Mélanie writes to David’s sister, Isobel Lydgate.

With Valentine’s Day a week away, I thought I would rework the blog I wrote this week for History Hoydens, bringing in some of the comments in the discussion that followed (not to mention fixing a misquote on my part!). I’ve wanted to do this blog for a while and Valentine’s Day seemed the perfect time to write it. Favorite romantic scenes–first declarations of love, resolutions of seemingly insurmountable conflicts, and other heart stopping moments. Here are a few of my favorites, scenes that bring an ache to my throat and put a smile on my face, many of them scenes I’ve reread so many times I know them by heart.

In no particular order:

1. “Oh, Damerel, must you be foxed just as this moment? How odious you are , my dear friend!”

The extended sequence at the end of Georgette Heyer’s Venetia in which Venetia and Damerel work out their differences has it all–conflict, humor, passion, and poignancy. Damerel is a world-weary rake and Venetia is a sheltered, unmarried woman, yet they’re so uniquely themselves that they pop off the page, and so obviously soul mates that you can’t but feel a catch in your throat as they battle through to their happy ending.

2. “I’ve just won a wager with myself.”

The scene in Freedom & Necessity by Steven Brust & Emma Bull in which Susan and James confess their feelings (and do rather more than confess them) may be my favorite literary love scene. It’s character-driven, emotionally fraught, erotically frank, and yet still filled with mystery. The final scene between the couple in the book is also lovely, and then there’s that fabulous last letter James writes to Susan, not to mention all the moments in between.

3. “Monseigneur, I would so much rather be the last woman than the first.”

These Old Shades is a comfort read for me, but it isn’t my favorite Georgette Heyer. It isn’t even in my top three. And yet I’ve reread the last scene between Avon and Léonie countless times. It’s beautifully written and structured, with a wonderful economy of gesture and emotion that speaks volumes. There’s very little inner monologue, and yet the emotional shifts are crystal clear.

4. “Now forget your responsibility to everyone else for once in your life and give me a straight answer. Do you want me to stay?”

The final scene in The Armies of Daylight, the third book in Barbara Hambly’s Darwath trilogy, may be the most satisfying lovers-getting-together-against-the-odds scene I’ve ever read, largely because the odds seem so very high and the happy ending so very much not guaranteed. There’s also something about this scene that to me is very much parallel to the Léonie/Avon scene, though the words are very different as are the characters. Yet both stories involve heroes who are considerably older than the heroines and who men capable of shaping the world round them (Ingold is a wizard, Avon a wealthy, powerful duke). Both men are convinced they’ll only bring unhappiness to the woman they love and are trying to do the noble thing and give her up (as is Damerel in scene 1. Doing the right thing can be very sexy). The heroines, Léonie and Gil, are very different women. Yet both are trying to convince the man they love that they know what they want and would much rather face the future with him, hand in hand. Like the scene from These Old Shades, this one has beautifully delineated emotional shifts and wonderful tension between desire and perceived duty and the competing objectives of the two characters.

5. “I do love nothing in the world so well as you: is not that strange?”

I got to do the church scene between Beatrice and Benedick from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in acting class in high school. My fellow sophomore Benedick and I barely scratched the surface of what the scene has to offer. But we had a lot of fun, and I still know most of the lines by heart. And every time I see the play, I find new things in this incredibly rich scene, which is funny, touching, romantic, and fraught with dark emotion. In the History Hoydens discussion, Pam Rosenthal said, It stops my heart now, as completely as it did when I first read it in my late teens. And Amanda Elyot, who is also an actress, said, That admission always takes my breath away. And it did when I played the role, every time we got to that moment. It’s a moment that is so well crafted; it manages to be totally earned and yet steals up on the lovers unawares.

6. “Placetne, magistra?”
“Placet.”

I think I studied Latin college partly so I could understand the dialogue between Peter and Harriet in the final scene of Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night (thanks to which I now know that Peter phrases the question in a neutral way, rather than a way that expects a yes or no answer). That this scene manages not to be trite or anticlimactic or trite after three books of angst and adventure, countless marriage proposals, and several brushes with death is no small feat. You can really believe in the balance these two characters have fought their way to, yet there’s still enough tension to keep the reading anxiously turning the pages. Harriet’s done a great deal of thinking in the pages before, but here, as in some of the other scenes I’ve mentioned, there’s very little inner monologue. And yet every word and detail is weighted with subtext, down to the traffic lights blinking Yes; No; Wait. And as Janet Mullany said in the History Hoydens discussion, it’s a book that has a breathtaking amount of sexual tension in it.

7. Too late, too late, too late. It had happened.

My mom and I used to call this the “Gigi” moment–where the hero suddenly realizes, with the force of a thunderclap, that he’s madly in love with the heroine who’s been right there under his nose for years and years or pages and pages. The moment when Francis Crawford of Lymond comes to this realization, in The Ringed Castle, book five of the Lymond Chronicles is all the more powerful for the world “love” never being used.

8. “I prefer you as you are–tainted and tarnished.”

The scene where Mary casts caution and calculation aside and crawls into bed with the wounded Lord Vaughn in Lauren Willig’s The Seduction of the Crimson Rose is just lovely. A truly romantic confession of feeling on both sides, made all the stronger by the fact that you know just what it costs these two people to let their guard down and make themselves vulnerable. Both maintain their wonderfully acerbic sides, which makes their confession of their feelings (couched or allude to in character-appropriate terms) all the more powerful.

9. “A bath and some inoculations are called for, Holmes.”

I think the “dock scene” from Laurie King’s A Monstrous Regiment of Women may be my favorite proposal scene. Intensely romantic in large part because so much about it is is quite the opposite. Holmes and Russell are filthy and soaking wet and in the midst of an argument about his having gone after the villain without her. There’s a wonderful juxtaposition of acerbic dialogue and passionate breaking free of restraint. As with Gaudy Night and the Darwath Chronicles, and the Lymond Chronicles, it has extra power from being the culmination of
more than one book of longing. It sends chills up my spine every time I read it (play on words intended, to those familiar with the scene).

10. “Well,” he said, with a transitory gleam of himself, “you’re my corner and I’ve come to hide.”

Peter and Harriet are the only couple to appear twice on this list. Much as I love the last scene of Gaudy Night, I think I may be even more fond of the final scene between them in Busman’s Honeymoon. It grapples with a question I’m fond of addressing in my own writing, “what happens after happily ever after?” And it balances the scales by letting Peter need Harriet. As Lauren Willig said in the History Hoydens Discussion, I think it’s the first book I read that really took the time to deal with what happened after that initial, hard won resolution. She then made a nice comparison to Charles and Mélanie and watching the struggle of two people struggling to find a way to fit together on an ongoing basis, achieving small victories and dealing with the occasional reversal. Which prompted me to mention that The last scene in Busman’s Honeymoon was my inspiration for the last scene in Beneath a Silent Moon, which was my starting place for the book. I knew I wanted to get Charles and Mélanie to that scene, and I worked backwards :-).

Ten very different scenes. And yet, as I revisited them to write this post, I realized that the very differences in scenes and characters are something the scenes have in common. Each is unique to the characters involved, in the setting and circumstances in which the scene occurs (a sitting room in the French countryside, a rocky hollow in an alternate universe the London docks, an Oxford street) to the circumstances to the words and gestures the characters find to express their feelings. There’s also a wonderful tension to all of them, a sense of the fragility of emotions and the bonds between two people and the risk of letting down one’s guard. None of them seem quite certain in advance and yet once the characters find their way to each other, you absolutely believe in the possibility of their happiness.

Have you read any of the books above? Did any of these scenes resonate with you? What are some favorite literary heart stopping moments of yours? What is it that makes them particularly effective?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is Isobel Lydgate’s reply to Mélanie’s desperate plea last week for help with a seating arrangement for one of her first political dinner parties in Berkeley Square.

Rifle fire peppered the air. Charles Fraser came awake with a jerk and tightened his grip on his wife. Mélanie froze in his arms, then sat bolt upright in bed. Another hale of bullets. One rifle. No, not a rifle. Rapping. On the oak door panels.

That’s currently the opening paragraph of Charles & Mélanie Book #4. It will very likely change during subsequent drafts, but working on a new book has me thinking about the crucial opening sentences of a novel. They can be daunting to an author–so daunting that I tend to force myself to get something down and not stare at the computer screen too long in writing a first draft. There’s so much one wants to accomplish in those sentences–establish character, setting, mood, theme–above all, draw the reader into the story.

Here are some opening paragraphs that have drawn me in:

“Lymond is back.”
It was known soon after the Sea-Catte reached Scotland from Campvere with an illicit cargo and a man she should not have carried.

From The Game of Kings, the first book of the Lymond Chronicles, by Dorothy Dunnett. Right away, the opening establishes a world of intrigue and adventure. You know you’re in Scotland and while the exact era may not be clear, the word choices (It was known, should not have carried) strike a note that isn’t modern. Above all, the opening sentences establish Lymond as a mysterious, fascinating person one wants to know more about. Which one could say is the core of the entire series.

The butler, recognizing her ladyship’s only surviving brother at a glance, as he afterwards informed his less percipient subordinates, favored Sir Horace with a low bow, and took it upon himself to say that my lady, although not at home to less nearly connected persons, would be happy to see him. Sir Horace, unimpressed by this condescension, handed his caped greatcoat to one of the footmen, his hat and cane to the other, tossed his gloves onto the marble-topped table, and said that he had no doubt of that, and how was Dassett keeping these days?

From The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer. A much quieter opening, but I remember being completely drawn in by it at the age of ten. The detail sets up the Regency world beautifully. Actions characterize both Dassett and Sir Horace. And the arrival of a family member who has, by implication, not been to visit in some time, sets up that the ordinary world is about to change.

The play–for which Briony has designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crêpe paper–was written in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch. When the preparations were complete, she had nothing to do but contemplate her finished draft and wait for the appearance of her cousins from the distant north.

From Atonement by Ian McEwan. We’re pulled immediately in the world of the young Briony. Her youth and emotional intensity (both of which are key to the story which is to unfold) come through and the wonderfully specific details (folding screen, red crêpe paper) begin to establish the world of the English country house in which the book opens. Again, there’s the sense of a world about to change with the arrival of outsiders. Most important, the book begins with a writer absorbed in creation, setting up the theme of the book.

The worst thing about knowing that Gary Fairchild had been dead for month was seeing him every day at work.

From The Silicon Mage, the second book in the Windrose Chronicles, by Barbara Hambly. We know at once that we’re in a fantasy world, and yet at the same time a world grounded in reality (every day at work). We get a touch of Joanna (the heroine)’s tenacious sense of humor even in dire straits. And we want to read on to see what on earth is going on :-).

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered to be the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

From Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. The driving force of the book, summed up with economical irony in the first sentence. Austen doesn’t begin with specific characters, it’s more a wide-angle shot, which sets up the world and the social pressures against which the story will play out, and also establishes the dry, ironic tone of the book. But though there aren’t specific characters, there’s the plot premise–wealthy single man (men) settle in a new neighborhood and every local family sees the prospect of husbands for their daughters.

I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him. In my defence, I must say it was an engrossing book and it was very rare to come across another person in that particular part of the world in that war year of 1915. In my seven weeks of peripatetic reading among the sheep (which tended to move out of my way) and the gorse bushes (to which I had painfully developed an instinctive awareness) I had never before stepped on a person.

From The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, the first Mary Russell novel, by Laurie R. King. It totally sucked me into the world of the book the first time I read it. There’s a surprising amount of setting detail (Sussex Downs, 1915, war year, sheep, gorse bushes) but all couched in Russell’s distinctive voice so you don’t feel you’re being inundated with information. Russell comes through as a vivid character, and the promise of learning about what happened when she nearly stepped on Sherlock Holmes keeps the reader turning the pages.

Thursday, June 18
The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth. After being acquitted of murdering her lover, Harriet Vane found all three specifics abundantly at her disposal. And although Lord Peter Wimsey, with a touching faith in tradition, persisted day in and day out in presenting the bosom for her approval, she showed no inclination to recline upon it.

From Have his Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers. Not first person, but the dry tone fits with Harriet’s pov and frames a surprising amount of back story. Harriet’s lover’s murder, her trial, and acquittal, and her present state of mind. As well as the current state of her relationship with Peter, which sets up their conflict in the book. And there’s perhaps a hint that Harriet is protesting too much which also foreshadows the future.

What draws you into a book? Any particularly effective openings to recommend? Writers, how do you approach the opening sentences of a new book? Do you craft them endlessly or dash off something and find you stick with it? Do you consciously consider where to start and why or is it instinctive?

Be sure to check out the new addition to the Fraser Correspondence. It’s a letter from Quen to Aspasia’s sister Cressida.

Last week’s discussion about friendship in novels segued into a discussion of romantic relationships rooted in friendship. Perla said, “As for my favorite friendship, it’s between Claire and Jamie from Outlander. I love the friendship they shared at the beginning of their amazing love story.” Cate brought up Anne and Gilbert in the Anne of Avonlea books and television series. Dorthe and Sarah talked about how Percy and Marguerite’s relationship evolves from Percy worshipping Margot on a pedestal and Margot feeling an almost desperate, possessive love for Percy to, as Dorthe said, “an understanding where she accepts his choices and he accepts the pain he causes her. In a way that kind of love is the most beautiful kind of friendship, I think, because it honours the freedom and the separateness of the two people involved although it also recognizes the deep bond.”

(more…)

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