There’s an interesting discussion going on at All About Romance about honor, particularly honorable heroes. I found it particularly inriguing, because honor is something Charles and Mélanie discuss a lot, especially in Secrets of a Lady.
I agree with Laurie of AAR that honorable behavior can be an extremely attractive quality (and make for a lot of dramatic tension). In the AAR discussion, I brought up Francis Crawford of Lymond as a particularly fascinating example because so many people (including those closest to him much of the time) think he’s being dishonorable, while all the while he’s usually acting from very honorable motives. I know a number of readers who gave up on The Game of Kings because they thought Lymond’s behavior was so despicable. My mom, who ended up loving the series, kept saying in the first book “he burned his mother’s castle.” Which of course, he does. But he has good reasons :-).
I also love stories about jaded characters who rediscover a sense of honor and idealism. Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Sheridan Drake in Laura Kinsale’s Seize the Fire, Rick Blaine (whose “hill of beans” speech to Ilsa at the end of Casablanca is pretty much a take on “I could not love thee, dear, so much, Lov’d I not honor more”). Damerel, in Georgette Heyer’s Venetia, is another jaded hero who rediscovers a sense of honor, which creates much of the romantic conflict. In the course of the book, Damerel’s intentions toward Veneita become honorable to the extent that only will he not seduce her, he thinks he’ll ruin her by marrying her. But I think one can argue that the confirmed rake Damerel has had a certain sense of honor all along. He has a wonderful exchange with Marston, his valet, which shows that he also behaves very honorably with Marston (he may lead him into scrapes, but he always rescues him, even at risk to himself).
Percy Blakeney is perhaps the epitome of the honorable hero, loyal to his friends, true to his word, driven to protect the weak. And yet his sense of honor also puts up barriers between him and Marguerite and makes it difficult to bridge the divide between them. I wished to test your love for me, and it did not bear the test, Marguerite says to him. You used to tell me that you drew the very breath of life but for me, and for love of me. To which Percy replies, And to probe that love, you demanded that I should forfeit mine honour,
In my own books, Charles struggles to behave honorably in a world he knows is far more gray than black and white. Perhaps I’m being a bloody idealistic fool, he says, but in this shifting sands of a world we live in, I’d like to believe my word at least counts for something. The hardest thing for him to get past when he learns the truth about Mélanie is that, in his words, You betrayed me, but in trusting you I betrayed my friends, my country, and any shred of honor I possessed. Mélanie realizes that However much Charles might reject the values of his world, his gentleman’s code of honor could make it impossible for him ever to forgive her for forcing him to break his word and betray his comrades.
And yet Charles does rethink is own conception of honor over the course of the book. It’s Mélanie who points out that The line between honor and dishonor is subject to definition. Quoting Shakespeare, she asks, What is honor? A word.
Which is the tricky thing about honor. Honor and honorable behavior mean different things to different people. Honor doesn’t just drive Francis Crawford, it drives the man who almost kills him. The insult to his friend Romeo’s honor drives Mercutio to his fatal fight with Tybalt. Rigid adherence to a code compels Inspector Javert to hunt down Jean Valjean, Ultimately when his code is too narrow to reconcile the debt he owes to Valjean for saving his life and his determination to bring Valjean to justice, he kills himself.
At the end of Secrets of a Lady, Charles has realized that Mélanie had …your own code before you met me. Mélanie says, that sounds suspiciously like ‘I could not love thee, dear, so much, Lov’d I not honor more. To which Charles replies An apt sentiment. He hasn’t given up his adherence to honor but he has broadened his definition.
In The Mask of Night, Mélanie asks him for his word that he won’t betray some of her former comrades. Charles gives it to her, but says Though I thought you were the one who claimed a word of honor was merely a word.
But a word you value highly, Mel replies.
Do you find honor a compelling quality in characters? Any interesting example of characters who are driven by honor for good or ill?
In this week’s addition to the Fraser Correspondence, Mélanie struggles with honorable behavior in a letter, to Raoul, a character many would call distinctly dishonorable, though as even Charles admits in The Mask of Night, he does have a code of sorts.
Update 20 August 2008: I’m blogging on History Hoydens today about Charting the world of a series. Do stop by and comment.