Perla had an interesting comment on the Prologue to The Mask of Night, which I posted a couple of weeks ago. The Prologue shows Mélanie’s first spy mission, long before she and Charles meet. Perla said she enjoyed seeing this glimpse of a young Mélanie. She went on to say “I have not had much sympathy for Melanie, I hadn’t forgiven her even if Charles had. But this excerpt intrigues me. I very much like to see proof of Melanie’s independence and skill in action. I am only now starting to be able to separate Mel’s life from her betrayal of Charles. It’s very important to me to see this other life she led.”
I love it when I get a glimpse of my characters through someone else’s eyes. I was surprised and pleased that Perla stayed with series despire having trouble feeling sympathy for Mélanie.I always knew Mélanie, particularly in Secrets of a Lady, would be a difficult character for some readers to sympathize with(as I mentioned in an earlier blog post, one friend who read an early version of the book sad flatly that she didn’t like Mélanie and couldn’t imagine how Charles could possibly forgive her; of course another friend kept saying “why is it taking Charles so long to get over this, she was just doing her job” :-)).
Perla’s comment got me thinking about how sympathizing (or not) with a character affects our reading of a book. Francis Crawford of Lymond in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles is a character who draws strong reactions from readers (and a character much on my mind, as I spent this afternoon with a group of fellow Dunnett-readers at an exhibit on Marie Antoinette and the Petit Trianon at San Francisco’s Legion of Honour). When I first read The Game of Kings, the first book in the Lymond Chronicles, I liked and sympathized with Lymond immediately. I didn’t know precisely why he was doing the things he was doing (which was a big part of what made him so intriguing), but I never doubted that he had good, noble reasons for his actions. But a number of readers find Lymond less than sympathetic in the early pages of the book (my mom kept saying “he burned his mother’s castle!” :-)). Some readers give up then and there (a number of friends I’ve tried to introduce the books to are in this category). Some stick with the books and start find Lymond more sympathetic somewhere in the second half of The Game of Kings (my mom was in this category). A few readers, I know from detailed online discussions of the books, never do particularly like Lymond, but stay with the books for rich adventures and historical background and the other characters.
Harriet Vane is another character I know some readers have trouble with, finding her two prickly to be sympathetic. On the other hand, she’s one of my favorite literary heroines. Another if Jane Austen’s Emma Wodehouse, though I have friends who think she’s far too self-absorbed to be sympathetic. On the other hand, I’ve never been able to warm up to Fanny in Mansfield Park. There’s every reason to feel sympathy for Fanny–she’s a poor relation, living a Cinderella existence in her uncle’s house, and yet she stays sweet and loyal and affectionate, even to those who haven’t treated her well. She’s arguably a nicer person than Mélanie or Lymond or Emma or possibly Harriet. But her moralizing (and lack of a sense of humor) grates on my nerves. (I have much the same problem with Jane Eyre, I confess, though she’s tougher and more spirited than Fanny, which to me makes her not only more interesting but more sympathetic).
Not sympathizing much with Fanny (or Edmund) doesn’t stop me from reading Mansfied Park and appreciating many brilliant things about it as a novel, though it the Jane Austen novel I return to least often. I’m happy Fanny and Edmund find their happy ending, but in a detached sort of way. I don’t find myself rooting for them the way I do more flawed characters who really engage my emotions and sympathies (perhaps all the more so because they are flawed)–Lymond and Philippa, Harriet and Peter, Emma and Mr. Knightley.
Have you found a major character difficult to sympathize with yet continued to read a book or series? If so, what keeps you reading? The storyline, the other characters, the desire to learn more about the unsympathetic character? Have you ever been surprised to find you viewed a character very different from fellow readers? What makes you give up on a character? What makes you stay with him or her despite your sympathies not being engaged?
By the way, as I mentioned in my reply to Perla, though The Mask of Night is set in January 1820 (just after Secrets of a Lady) there are several flashbacks in which you see a younger Mélanie and what her life and work were like before Charles.
Speaking of Mélanie and the ambiguity of her behavior, this week’s addition to the Fraser Correspondence is a letter from her to Raoul, after Charles has gone off on the secret mission he wrote about in last week’s letter.
And be sure to visit my new microsite on the HarperCollins website, which just launched on Friday. HarperCollins is doing a fabulous job with these microsites. Mine has some really fun features, including rotating book recommendations, photo albums (with a number of pictures that aren’t on this site yet), and a Timeline that integrates key events in Charles Mélanie’s lives with historical events. I’ll be updating the microsite frequently, so be sure to check it as well as this site.
Wednesday update: just a note to add that I’m blogging today on History Hoydens about Love & Dangerous Liaisons in which I talk about some of the real life people and events who inspired the intrigues in Beneath a Silent Moon.