Emma


Earlier this week week, I turned in revisions on Imperial Scandal, my Waterloo-set book (which will be out in April 2012). My greatest challenge during the revision process was how to handle a scene involving Mélanie/Suzanne that my editor wanted me to change. I discussed this scene in the comments on my post on sympathetic characters a few weeks ago and found everyone’s comments very helpful. This week I blogged on History Hoydens about how I ultimately handled the scene and again touched on what makes characters sympathetic–or not. I thought I’d repeat the blog here. Warning:this post contains spoilers for the series, particularly for Secrets of a Lady and Imperial Scandal.

I love the revision process, a chance to hone and shape and refine the story and characters (though I get very nervous letting the book go, afraid I’ve missed something). Thinking back through the revisions, I didn’t actually make that many major changes (though it certainly felt as though I was working on them long enough!). But I did make one significant change at my editor’s suggestion. It involved reworking a scene which originally involved infidelity on the part of the one of the major characters.

This was a scene I’d had in my own mind for a long time before I wrote Imperial Scandal, and I was sure that this was how this would play out for these two characters (two people who are devastated and cast adrift in the wake of the battle of Waterloo). But my editor was afraid it would destroy reader sympathy for the character committing infidelity and on reflection I could totally see her point (I had actually known I was pushing the envelope with this scene). When I broached the topic on my website with some readers who were familiar with both characters, reactions were mixed, but in general convinced me my editor was right to worry about the sympathy issue.

Oddly enough, going back to Leslie Carroll’s and Pam Rosenthal’s recent excellent posts on writing sex scenes, this was the one sex scene I’d written recently where it actually seemed important to show some detail of how the scene played out. I’d actually had some qualms myself about whether or not one of the characters (not the one committing infidelity as it happens) would actually go through with it. I ended up writing two new versions of the scene, one in which the characters almost make love and break it off, one in which is a tearful farewell without lovemaking (though it does still include a farewell kiss). I ended up using the later, and I’m quite happy with it and how it fits into the arc of the book. But when I was describing the revision over the weekend to a writer friend who had read the original manuscript, she said she’d liked the way the scene originally played out (even though it surprised her) and that it actually made her more sympathetic to the characters.

Which prompted me to think about what makes me lose sympathy for a character. It’s an elusive thing. In general, once I’m engaged with a character, I will stick with her or him through a lot. And an action that might make me lose sympathy for one character in one set of circumstances might not bother me so much with another character in other circumstances. Heathcliff lost my sympathy when he let his sickly son die (not calling a doctor). Francis Crawford of Lymond held on to my sympathy when he was more directly responsible for the death of his son, the difference for me I think being that Heathcliff acts out of anger and hurt whereas Lymond is trying to save others. And that Lymond is wracked with guilt afterward. I confess I lost sympathy for Fanny Price when she objected to amateur theatricals. Whereas Emma’s Woodhouse’s treatment of Miss Bates saddened me but didn’t destroy my sympathy for Emma. Of course Emma too feels guilt afterward.

I’m still pondering other characters and what engages or disengages my sympathy. Meanwhile, while I like the revised scene in Imperial Scandal, I’m also glad I had the chance to write it the way I originally envisioned it. After Imperial Scandal is published, I’ll post all three versions on my website. I’ll very interested in reader reactions.

Writers, what’s the biggest change you’ve made in the revision process? Have you ever changed something because you were worried about reader reactions? Readers, has a character you liked (particularly in an ongoing series) ever lost your sympathy? Why? And what do you think of the decision I ultimately made about the scene in question?

Perhaps appropriately for this blog, this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Mélanie/Suzanne to Raoul.

I claim to believe in liberty, equality, and fraternity. And I live here.

Mélanie says these words to her mentor and former lover Raoul in Secrets of a Lady, surrounded by the surrounded by the Siena marble, intricate fretwork, and Aubusson carpet of her elegant Berkeley Square library. Pam Rosenthal had a wonderful post a couple of weeks ago on History Hoydens which got me thinking about Mélanie’s words. Pam wrote about the conundrum of being “deeply egalitarian in my attitudes toward social, political, and economic matters” and yet writing “in a genre that centers itself upon the pleasures and pursuits of the Regency ton.” Pam’s post and my own recent blog here on “Charles, Mélanie, and money” inspired my post this week on History Hoydens. One of the things I love about the blogosphere is the way a post and the attendant discussion can inspire another post and create a rich conversation among readers and writers. With that in mind, I thought I’d carry the conversation over to my own blog this week.

These days, it’s difficult not to think about economic matters. And for those of us who write predominantly about aristocrats, the contrast is perhaps sharper than ever. The 1930s romantic comedies I loved as a child were a big influence on me as a writer. So many of those stories (Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, My Man Godfrey among others) take place in a rarefied world of cocktail parties and dinner dances, weekends in the country and engraved cards of invitation). In many ways it’s a fairytale world of escapism with black tie and glamorous gowns and cocktails on the terrace. And yet the darker side of the Depression era is not out of sight. My Man Godfrey begins with the madcap society girl heroine on a scavenger hunt from which she brings back the “forgotten man” hero and makes him the family butler. The hero, Godfrey, turns out to have a more complicated past than meets the eye, one which brings the story back to the whole ever-present question of “forgotten men.”

In Holiday, the hero, a young, self-made man, wants to take a holiday and “come back and work when he knows what he’s working for” to the horror of his socialite fiancée and her Wall Street father (but the delight of his fiancée’s sister). In The Philadelphia Story (which remains one of my all time favorite movies and plays), a left-wing reporter assigned (to his disgust) to cover a society wedding, goes to write about “the privileged class enjoying its privileges” (writing this post, it occurred to me that my Bow Street Runner Jeremy Roth probably owes something to Mike Connor; both view the privileged class with a jaundiced eye and are reluctant to be drawn into this alien world). In the course of a midsummer night both Mike and the heiress bride-to-be Tracy Lord re-evaluate their attitudes toward social class as well as the nature of love and morality.

As Amanda Elyot commented in the History Hoydens discussion, “The wealthy and privileged characters depicted are behaving totally in character the entire time, but they grow; their character takes a journey, which should be the case in all good writing. And because along the way they learn a powerful lesson, about themselves and about the world they live in, then we care about them and want them to succeed, find love — and even stay rich!”

My mom, who grew up during the Depression, introduced me to these movies (in the days before vcrs and dvds, we often went to old movie revival houses). My mom was also a lifelong liberal with a strong sense of social justice. As I wrote in response to Pam’s post, “I absorbed strongly egalitarian values from my mom, who also introduced me to Georgette Heyer [and Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and other writers who’s books are largely set in a rarefied and aristocratic world] and took me out for tea and with whom I started writing Regency romances. Even our first book, The Widow’s Gambit, which was very ‘London Season,’ had scenes set in the darker side of the Regency world. Exploring that darker side is something I’ve done more and more through the years. But there’s no denying my central characters live a very elite privileged existence.” And in my own life, though I certainly don’t live in Charles and Mélanie’s elite world, I confess I’m a political, social, and economic liberal who also enjoys the opera and nice restaurants and has a weakness for designer labels (usually purchased at 70% off :-).

In my books, Mélanie in a sense confronts the same paradox. She married Charles (diplomat, politician, duke’s grandson) because she was working for a cause that opposed everything his world stands for. She realizes her marriage had catapulted her neatly over an artificial and quite unconscionable social divide. And yet she thinks in Secrets that the longer one played a role, the more natural it became. She had grown all too comfortable with the privileges she had married into. It’s a conundrum she continues to wrestle with. In fact, I think she’ll confront it more in future books, when her past and ideals aren’t so buried.

Mélanie’s conflict mirrors a number of my own conflicting feelings as an author who writes about a very privileged set of people. I love reading (and writing) about balls and gowns and country house parties and social intrigue. But I’m also fascinated by the contrast between the “Silver Fork” world and it’s darker, more Dickensian side. When I blogged about this topic earlier, Stephanie commented, “It’s not an easy line to tread. Because I enjoy reading about ‘the glitter and the gold’ in historical romance, yet few things raise my hackles more quickly than a hero or heroine born at the top of the food chain and carrying around a whopping sense of entitlement….Maybe the difference between an obnoxious versus a sympathetic member of the elite has to do with how they ‘wear’ power. Do they wear it expecting lesser beings to tug their forelocks and kowtow? Or do they wear it more lightly, understanding that, as people born to wealth and station, they might have something of a duty to those less fortunate than themselves? I suspect that Regency–and for that matter, Victorian–society had plenty of people occupying both ends of the spectrum.”

That range of attitudes gives writers a lot of leeway in how portray characters. Think of the difference between Anne Elliot’s self-absorbed father and elder sister in Persuasion versus Darcy who has a strong sense of the duty that comes with his position. Or the way Emma’s attitudes change over the course of her namesake book. When my mom first introduced me to Emma, she compared Emma Woodhouse to Tracy Lord. Austen may not write about climbing boys and the stews of St Giles, but she does a brilliant job of showing the plight of women without a fortune without anyone lecturing about it.

And writing about the powerful, doesn’t necessarily mean ignoring social realities. As Taryn commented in the earlier discussion, “power, well-used, is very attractive, and mis-used is intriguing as a force to be feared.”

As writer Mike Connor says to Tracy Lord, “With the rich and mighty, always a little patience.”

How do you feel about power and privilege in the novels you read? Do you prefer to read about characters living an elite and aristocratic life? Do you like to see the dark side of that life or escape in to the fairy tale? Does it make a difference whether the story is set in the past or the present day? Does the current economic situation make you yearn for escapism or make you want stories more grounded in economic reality? Or both? How do you think Mélanie will cope in the future with the disconnect between her ideals and the life she’s married into? Do you think it will be easier or harder for her when she can admit the truth about her feelings to Charles?

Mélanie confronts that disconnect in this week’s addition to the Fraser Correspondence, a letter she writers to Raoul (in code) after her political dinner party in the Berkeley Square house.

I blogged a while back about my fondness for imperfect characters. As I wrote, “I’ve always found flawed characters much more interesting than the more conventionally heroic sort. Growing up, Milady de Winter was my favorite character in The Three Musketeers (I thought Constance was boring), I couldn’t understand why Lucie Manette looked twice at Charles Darnay when Sydney Carton was around, I much preferred Mary Crawford to Fanny Price.” Sarah wrote to me recently following up on this, because she’s reading The Three Musketeers and getting to know the fascinating Milady de Winter. Sarah wrote, “I know I tend to prefer heroines who use their ‘feminine wiles’ – or sexuality – to achieve their own way, instead of resorting to the cliched ‘PC’ approach of typically male methods, such as physical violence, and Milady is the perfect example of a strong woman.”

As with so many classics, my first introduction to The Three Musketeers was my mom reading it out loud to me when I was quite small. I remember her describing the book before we read it and saying “It has a fascinating heroine–I mean villainess.” That’s a perfect way to describe Milady, because while she’s definitely an antagonist to d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, she’s a compelling, fascinating character. (more…)

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” :-)).

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