San Francisco Opera’s fall season opened with a fabulous production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore. I was lucky enough to see it three times (the final dress rehearsal, a simulcast at ATT ballpark, and the closing performance). The production updated the setting from medieval Spain to the Peninsular War, which of course I loved. The Goya-inspired setting fit well with a story of war, divided families, and one atrocity leading to another.
At the heart of Trovatore’s tangled, over-the-top plot are two brothers, separated at birth, now unknown to each other fighting for opposite sides and rivals for the love of the same woman. Watching the opera, I found myself thinking about brothers in literature. As I write this, I’m watching The Man in the Iron Mask, yet another take on brothers separated at birth who become rivals. Sibling relationships are fascinating, but in British historical stories the laws of inheritance make the rivalry between brothers particularly intense. Among the aristocracy the eldest son inherits the title and estates, while younger sons may at best receive a secondary property of their mother’s and in many cases have to make their own way in the world as soldiers, ministers, or barristers. In As You Like It, Orlando is living as a servant on the dubious charity of his elder brother Oliver who has inherited all the family lands and fortune.
Questions of legitimacy can further complicate this rivalry. In King Lear, the Duke of Gloucester’s illegitimate son Edmund sets out to destroy his legitimate brother Edgar, driven by the pent up jealousy of watching his brother be heir to their father’s lands and title due to the fact that Edgar’s mother was married to the duke while Edmund was born on the wrong side of the blanket.
The issues grow even more tangled when an acknowledged son and heir may actually be illegitimate. The rivalry between Lymond and Richard runs through Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles (including one of the best literary sword fights I’ve ever read in The Game of Kings). At the heart of that rivalry is competition for parental affection and the family estates, and the question of who is who’s son, who deserves what, who is loved best. What makes rivalry between brothers particularly interesting, is that it tends to be mixed, as in Lymond and Richard’s case, with strong love that goes back to the cradle.
I think I had Lymond and Richard in mind when I created Charles and Edgar in Secrets of a Lady. I know I was thinking of Edmund and Edgar, because I deliberately named my Edgar after the legitimate brother from Lear. I decided quite early on in the plotting process, over lattes with my friend Penny, that Charles was illegitimate, that Edgar knew this and Charles didn’t, and that part of Edgar’s motivation stemmed from feeling that everything Charles had inherited should rightfully be his. I also knew I wanted the bond between the brothers to be strong, so that Edgar’s betrayal would be a particularly intense blow to Charles (poor Charles gets betrayed a great deal).
Beneath a Silent Moon features another pair of brothers in Quen and Val. There’s a rivalry between them that their father has encouraged. Charles tells Mel about the boys trying to scale the Old Tower at Dunmykel when they were children. But I found as I wrote the book that, despite the fact that much of Val’s behavior is appalling, the relationship between the two brothers was more complex and had more affection in it than I had at first envisioned. Quen and Val’s relationship is also clouded by questions of legitimacy as the story progresses. I think that one of the reasons I write about legitimacy and illegitimacy in so many books is that so much of the social order among British aristocrats was build on birth. So that questions about legitimacy can strike at the very foundations of that world (foundations which Edgar, in particular, takes very seriously).
In Beneath a Silent Moon, the reader doesn’t see Val react to the revelations about Quen’s birth, but in the letters I wrote for the new edition, Quen writes to Aspasia that Val said their father “wouldn’t do violence to himself–Talbots have too strong a sense of self-preservation, as we both should know. I pointed out that I’m apparently not a Talbot, as I had explained to him before we left Scotland. Val shot me one of his looks and said I’d been raised as one, I couldn’t escape the legacy.” Val handles the revelation of his elder brother’s illegitimacy better than Edgar. But then, for all his faults, I think Val has more ambiguity tolerance than Edgar.
Do you like stories about brothers? What are some favorites? Writers, do you enjoy writing about brothers as rivals?
In honor of the National Equity March, this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a love letter from Simon to David.