Sarah emailed me recently with some interesting questions about writing historical fiction and being accurate to the mores of the time. She asked is readers prefer historical accuracy in characters’ attitudes and behavior, however unpleasant by today’s standards, or a romantic whitewash of the past.
It’s a fascinating topic. I touched on it a few months ago with a blog on Past Imperfect . I also talked about Unconventional Characters in a Conventional World when I was a guest on Romantic Inks last year. As someone who strives for historical accuracy, yet constantly writes characters who break the rules of their day, it’s a topic I find fascinating. I have no desire to paint a pretty picture of the dark (the Regency era has a definite dark side), but my most of my characters could hardly be called conventional (if I wrote about modern-day characters I doubt they’d be called conventional either). As I’m settling in with a new book, revisiting familiar characters and creating new ones, this seemed like a good time to revisit the topic.
Part of researching an era is getting to know its conventions, the rules (many unwritten) that governed social interactions, from introductions to insults to courtship and marriage. And yet so many of my favorite characters defy conventions. Sir Percy Blakeney, a seemingly typical pink of the ton, has secret adventures in France as the Scarlet Pimpernel and (probably more shocking from the point of view of the English ton) marries a French actress. Sophy Stanton-Lacey in Heyer’s The Grand Sophy (one of my favorite Heyer heroines from the age of ten) drives a carriage down St. James’s Street, right past the gentlemen’s clubs. Teen-aged Philippa Somerville leaves her home in northern England and follows Francis Crawford of Lymond round the Mediterranean. And rule-breaking characters aren’t found only in works by historical novelists dealing with the conventions of the past. Shakespeare frequently has his characters defy the conventions of their world. Heroines such as Viola, Rosalind, and Imogen disguise themselves as men. Portia not only dons male attire but impersonates a lawyer (quite brilliantly). Benedick breaks with his best friend and Prince to consider Beatrice’s perspective when her cousin is (falsely) accused. Romeo and Juliet marry in secret in defiance of their parents, and Juliet deceives her parents by faking her own death to run off with Romeo.
In any era, one can find a wide range of behaviors, some well outside the accepted conventions of the day. Rules create obstacles. Having characters push against those obstacles can create wonderful conflict. The key, I think, is to create characters who would believably break rules and to make sure to deal with the consequences of their rule breaking in the world round them.
When I created Mélanie and Charles, I knew I was developing an unconventional pair of characters. They had to be rule-breakers for the stories I wanted to write about them to work. So I kept that in mind as I worked out their back stories and the forces that shaped them. Charles and Mélanie both have a number of reasons for being unconventional. Charles had the early influence of Raoul O’Roarke, introducing him to books such as Paine’s Rights of Man and Beaumarchais’s Figaro trilogy, talking over the ethics of characters in Shakespeare plays, encouraging him to examine ideas and turn them inside out. He also had the influence of his mother–in her own way, Lady Elizabeth Fraser was hardly a conventional woman (and as a duke’s daughter, she could afford not to be). At Oxford, Charles met Simon Tanner, who grew up in Paris in the early days of the French Revolution and whose father was a painter and mother an artist’s model. After Oxford, Charles became a diplomat and intelligence agent. His young adulthood was lived out against the chaos of the Peninsular War instead of in orderly English drawing rooms and clubs.
Mélanie had an even more unconventional childhood as the daughter of traveling actors with revolutionary sympathies. She grew up surrounded by a bohemian life style and radical politica thought. Later, as orphaned teenager left to fend for herself on the streets of Salamanca, she lost all vestiges of conventional morality. When he find her in the brothel, Raoul not only molded her into an agent, he reminded her, as she tells Charles in Secrets of a Lady, of Rousseau and Thomas Paine and William Godwin–all the ideas I’d been raised.
By the time Secrets of a Lady begins, Mélanie and Charles are living a more sedate life in London, yet they are still known for being unconventional. Charles has some decidedly atypical (from our perspective we might say “modern”) views on men and women and marriage. At one point in Secrets he thinks:
[He] had always claimed that whose bed a woman had shared before her marriage was no more a man’s business than it was a wife’s business to ask the same about her husband. He recalled arguing as much in an after-dinner discussion fueled by plentiful port. ‘It’s all very well to try to outrage us with your bohemian sensibilities, Fraser,’ one of the other men present has said, staggering to the sideboard, where their host kept a chamber pot. ‘You’d feel differently if it was your own wife we were talking about.’
Charles knows his views are atypical. One of the reasons he is able to get away with expressing them is the protection of family and fortune. The grandson of a duke, connected (as Mélanie thinks at one point) “to half the British peerage”, he may cause some raised eyebrows, but he isn’t going to be barred from most Mayfair drawing rooms. And as his wife, Mélanie can get away with things that would spell ruin for Elizabeth Bennet.
Which doesn’t mean she can get away with everything. One of the tensions of Secrets (which will continue in subsequent books in the series) and is the that Mélanie knows she is admired and sought after by a society that would shun her if they the faintest idea of her origins. Mélanie’s rule breaking is usually born of the situation rather than a need to shock (such as Barbara Childe in Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army, one of my favorite convention-defying heroines). When I got to a scene in Beneath a Silent Moon where Mélanie and Charles are going to explore a secret passage in the middle of the night, it occurred to me that it would have been very foolish of her not to pack a shirt and breeches, knowing the sort of adventures she might be getting into. On the other hand it would never occur to me (or to Mélanie) for her to dress so for a morning ride in Hyde Park.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on unconventional characters. Do you like to read and write about them? Do you prefer it to be the heroine who is the rule-breaker or the hero or both? What determines whether or not you find it believable when a character defies convention? Writers, what are the challenges you’ve found in writing such characters?
This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Mélanie, in a more conventional vein than usual, writing to Simon about their decision to move into the Berkeley Square house.