Les Liaisons Dangereuses


After some typical Bay Area summer days of bone chilling fog, it’s lovely and sunny today. A slight breeze, not too hot. The sort of day that cries out for lolling in a hammock or sitting by the pool with a good book. Of course I’ve spent the day in a whirl of Saturday errands (which included the fun of finding a great summer bag on sale at Nordstrom’s). Now I’m updating my website and I need to write at least 700 more words on my new book and a get a workout in somewhere. Between finishing Vienna Waltz revisions, working on my Waterloo book, Porchlight Theatre’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses production, and the start of the Merola Opera Program (we had our Meet the Merolini event last night, where we met the 2010 Merola artists), my summer so far has been a bit chaotic if fun.

But I’m at least dreaming of lazy summer reading time, and this seemed a good time to post a summer reading list. Most of my suggestions this year are series, perhaps not surprising as I write series myself :-):

The Lady Emily books by Tasha Alexander. Vivid characters, both real historical people and fictional ones. Exotic locales, exciting mysteries, a wonderful ongoing romance, and Lady Emily’s fascinating character development over the series, as she struggles to be independent amid the strictures of Victorian society.

The Gemma James/Duncan Kincaid series by Deborah Crombie. I had the fun of catching up on recently on several books I’d missed in this series. I used them as bribes–write 100 words, and I got to read a section. The page-turning plots kept me up far into the night, while the rich character development made me feel I was visiting old friends. I don’t cry over books often, but these stories brought tears to my eyes (sometimes happy tears) more than once. And though Deb is American, you absolutely feel you’re in contemporary London.

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick. Compelling, surprising, tragic, and ultimately surprisingly hopeful. This historical novel set in 1907 Wisconsin drew me in from the first page, and I found it almost impossible to put down.

The Sebastian St. Cyr books by C.S. Harris. Wonderful series set in Regency London. Each book is its own intricate mystery, but there’s also a fascinating mystery about the hero’s life (and his relationships with his family and romantic interests) that runs through the series and makes one eagerly await the next installment.

The Julia Grey books by Deanna Raybourn. Another series I discovered this year and eagerly devoured. Wonderful Victorian atmosphere, a fascinating ongoing romance, and an intriguing deftly drawn ongoing group of supporting characters in Julia’s vivid, eccentric family.

The Pink Carnation books by Lauren Willig. Napoleonic spies. Adventure. Mystery. Romance. One of the best parts of my New York trip last fall was talking books with Lauren and getting a sneak peek of what’s to come in the series. If you haven’t already discovered Lauren’s books, go find them–now!

What’s on your summer reading list?

I’ve just posted a new letter from Mélanie to Raoul in the Fraser Correspondence. I’m having a lot of fun telling the days after Napoleon’s escape from Elba through my characters’ eyes.

This weekend Porchlight Theatre Company’s production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, on which I was a production adviser, opened in the beautiful outdoor Redwood Amphitheatre in Ross, California. Last night I gave a pre-show talk on the background and context of the play. One of the things I touched on was that, as our dramaturg Jesse Brownstein pointed out during the rehearsal period, the play was written in the 1980s though it based on a novel from the 1780s. I always think historical fiction says something about the time in which it was written as well as the time in which the story is set. Here’s a video clip where I talk about contemporary relevance in terms of Vienna Waltz:

Do you see modern parallels in the historical fiction you read? Writers, do you think about contemporary relevance when you write about an historical era?

I just posted a new letter to the Fraser Correspondence, Raoul writing to Mélanie shortly after Napoleon’s escape from Elba.

This week I had the fun of attending one of the early rehearsals of Porchlight Theatre Company’s production of Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, for which I’m serving as historical production advisor. In the breaks in the rehearsal, I worked on my Vienna Waltz revisions. Watching the production begin to take shape in exciting ways reminded me of how much my writing process mirrors the rehearsal process for a play. Which perhaps isn’t surprising since I spent much of my high school and college years in the theater.

The Porchlight rehearsal began with presentations by designers of the set and costume designs. Before I start to write a scene, I need to visualize the setting and what the characters are wearing. I don’t have set and costume designers to work with, but I look at pictures, pour through fashion notes (often visiting Candice Hern’s wonderful website), jot down descriptive details, think about how I can work in all five senses. The smell of coffee and chocolate in a Viennese café, the clink of crystal and patter of kid slippers on a parquet floor at a ball, the enveloping damp of the London air, the sour taste of the harsh red wine in a tavern.

Actors and the director spend time talking through the back story of the characters, filling in details not supplied by the author. When did Valmont and Merteuil meet? How did Madame de Tourvel meet her husband? I do the same when I plot a book and create character profiles. But just as actors and directors sometimes stop later in the rehearsal process to talk through a particular bit of back story, I often realize there are more back story details I need to work out as I’m writing.

The rehearsal process usually begins with a read through. My first draft of a scene is often dialogue. Then I go back over it and “stage” the scene, layering in actions and descriptions and bits of inner monologue, having my characters interact with their world. Just as the Porchlight actors and directors were refining the blocking and bits of business in the rehearsal I attended.

I work through each scene several times. But when I have a draft of the whole book, I usually do two or three more drafts. With the whole book before me, I can see things (especially plot and character arcs) that aren’t apparent to me on the first draft. It’s similar to when a theater company begins to do run throughs of the entire play. New things become apparent, whether it’s the timing a set change or the emotional shifts of characters from scene to scene.

As I polish Vienna Waltz, it’s fun to think back to how the book has developed from the first scenes I wrote to now. Similarly, I look forward to watching Les Liaisons Dangereueses continue to take shape in the coming weeks.

The different ways different writers approach their work fascinates me. Writers, what’s your writing process like? Readers, does going “behind the scenes” and learning about the process of developing a book interest you? Any particular questions about the writing process? It’s one of my favorite topics of discussion!

I just posted a new letter from Raoul to Mélanie to the Fraser Correspondence.

Yesterday, I had the fun of talking to the cast of an upcoming production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses by The Porchlight Theatre Company (a wonderful theater group that specializes in the classics, though I should confess to being a bit biased as I’m a board member).

I was there to talk about the historical context of the story. It was very impressive listening to the research the cast had already done. There’s a wonderful richness in so many people exploring an era, very different from a writer’s solitary research. Les Liaisons Dangereuses, both Choderlos de Laclos’s epistolary novel and the Christopher Hampton play and various other adaptations, has fascinated me for years. As I explained to the cast, this is the world of my main characters’ parents—which explains a lot about the problems my characters have :-). I realized a long time ago that to understand the forces that shaped my characters I needed to understand the French Revolution and the world before it, the LLD world.

Lady Bessborough compared the Marquise de Merteuil in LLD to Lady Melbourne, the great Whig hostess. Les Liaisons Dangereuses, first published in 1782, scandalized late 18th century society on both sides of the Channel not because the world it described—in which seductions are strategized with the cool calculation of a chess game—seemed alien but because it hit so very close to home. The novel had an impact on French and British society for at least a generation. There were rumors that a private copy with blank binding had been ordered for Marie Antoinette’s library. It was still a scandalous book in the Regency/Napoleonic era.

Beneath a Silent Moon is my book most influenced by LLD. Kenneth Fraser, Lady Frances, and Lord Glenister lived in this world. When I was working on the book, I went to the wonderful Frick Collection in New York. I was building Kenneth Fraser’s art collection, but I particularly focused on the Fragonard and Boucher paintings. Two archetypal painters for this world. I was struck by the prettiness in the paintings with sensuality beneath the surface. A delicate, carefully controlled world. In Beneath a Silent Moon, Mélanie thinks of it as “young lovers in a rose strewn garden watched over by Venus and Cupid. A world of sugar-coated romance with carnality pulsing just beneath the surface.”

Kenneth Fraser and Lord Glenister’s bet about seducing a married lady who had not yet given her husband an heir and Kenneth’s ruthlessness in winning the bet by seducing Glenister’s wife are right in line with the behavior of the characters in LLD. And with real stories from the era, including one I used in the book about one man buying a mistress from a friend for five thousand pounds and both the lady and her husband being witnesses to the contract.

In Beneath, Lady Frances says that “The younger generation don’t necessarily play the game by the same rules.” It is true that things were changing. Romantic games were still a favorite pastime of the beau monde (Lady Melbourne’s daughter, Emily Cowper, had children by a number of different men, including her long-time lover Lord Palmerston whom she eventually married after the death of her first husband). But the games were played more subtly, with love holding greater weight in the equation. At least for some. I have Val and Honoria in Beneath playing games similar to Valmont and Merteuil in LLD.

Yesterday we talked about how the Christopher Hampton play version of Les Liaisions Dangereuses begins and ends with games of piquet. I’ve always seen LLD (and particularly the Hampton play) as the story of people who try to turn passion into a game. To put a neat frame round it, as in the Fragonard and Boucher paintings. But ultimately they can’t control their emotions and that’s their downfall. Valmont cares for Madame de Tourvel and it interferes with his game playing. The marquise cares for Valmont, though she tries to deny it, and it influences her actions.

If you think about the music of the era, Beethoven’s music in the post LLD era is full of unrestrained emotion. His music was considered very shocking. Not, I think, because there was passion on the music—people in the late 18th century were quite frank about sex—but because it was passion and emotion that couldn’t be controlled.

Interestingly, the world of the Congress of Vienna, about which I’m writing now, is very like the world of LLD. Perhaps not surprisingly. Many of the politicians were trying to turn the clock back to before the French Revolution. The world of the ancien régime. Trying to impose a neat order and control reformist ideas. At the same time there was a lot of romantic intriguing at the Congress that seems straight out of the LLD world.

Have you read Les Liaisons Dangereuses or seen any of the adaptations? If you write books set in the late 18th or early 19the centuries does the world it describes influence your writing? How does the world of The Scarlet Pimpernel, just a few years later, compare?

In the Fraser Correspondence, I’m taking a break from Charles and Mélanie’s adventures at the Congress of Vienna and writing about their first holiday season together in 1812 (we’ll return to the Congress of Vienna after the holidays). This week’s addition is a letter from Charles to Mel, five days after their marriage.