Mad Men


My good friend and fellow History Hoyden Isobel Carr had a great post recently about anti-heroes. (Isobel has a wonderful new book out, by the way, Ripe for Pleasure, featuring an anti-hero and a courtesan). The fascinating follow-up discussion on Isobel’s post took me back to a question I pondered a bit myself in a post on “Bad girl” heroines. What exactly makes an anti-hero or anti-heroine? Is it the behavior or the motives?

I’ve heard the term anti-hero used to encompass a range of characters. There’s the Talented Mr. Ripley, who commits murder for his own advancement. There’s Don Draper, who has principles of a sort and is remarkably loyal to some of the people in his life, but seems to have no concept of romantic fidelity–(or at least no ability to be faithful. (One of the things I love about Mad Men is how all the characters are flawed and yet all of them have sympathetic moments.) Francis Crawford of Lymond does all sorts of seemingly horrible things, and yet he inevitably proves to have done so for the noblest of motives. Is he an anti-hero? Or is an anti-hero someone who acts out of selfish motives and doesn’t have a core of principles? Both Han Solo and Rick Blaine claim to only be out for themselves fairly early in their respective stories. And yet neither of them does anything remotely approaching Lymond’s actions (burning his mother’s castle, being responsible for the death of his son).

Isobel described Lady Barbara Childe in Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army as “a benchmark anti-heroine.” Lady Barbara’s behavior is certainly destructive and causes pain to a number of people. On the other hand, I don’t think she does anything as morally questionable as Mélanie/Suzanne (entering a marriage on false pretenses, lying to her spouse for years, being responsible for deaths because of information she passed along). But Mélanie is acting out of loyalty to a cause and comrades, whereas Barbara’s behavior is driven by being discontented and unhappy. Does that make one more an anti-heroine than the other?

How do you define anti-heroes and anti-heroines? Is it their actions or their motivation or both? What are some of your favorite examples? What does it take for you for such a character to be redeemed?

If Tatiana Kirsanova were the protagonist of a novel, I think she might be an anti-heroine. This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Geoffrey Blackwell to Lady Frances about Tatiana’s death (dealing with some of the questions in response to last week’s letter about who knew what when about Tatiana’s birth).

Thanks so much for all the wonderful discussion in response to last week’s post on “Bad Girl” Heroines. That post was inspired by Rike’s post on AAR on “Bad Girl” Heroines and the ensuing discussion, and Rike’s post in turn was inspired by Sandy’s post on “Bad Boy” Heroes.

One of the most interesting things to me about both discussions is simply defining what a “bad boy” hero or “bad girl” heroine is. The AAR post had a wonderful picture of the endlessly fascinating Don Draper from Mad Men. And yet some of the posters said Don seems more like a “bad man” than a “bad boy.” To me, there’s something not-quite-grown-up about a “bad boy.” Their actions often seem driven by a need to rebel or to get attention. They can be a lot of fun to read about, but they often lose my sympathy, not because of the things they do so much as because of their lack of maturity. I found Vidal in Heyer’s Devil’s Cub very romantic as a teenager, but he annoys me as I get older. I still like the book, and I even like him, and I believe in the happy ending. But I’m more inclined, on rereads, to say “oh, for heaven’s sake, grow up.” Don Draper, by contrast, is a grown up, flaws and all. He’s driven by his own demons, but not, I think, by a need to get attention (though Sandy made a good case in the discussion for Don as a “bad boy”). And though some of his behavior is arguably worse than Vidal’s, he’s more likely to intrigue me than to annoy me (though I certainly wouldn’t want to be married to him).

I think my favorite literary Bad Boy is Damerel in Heyer’s Venetia. Like Don, he’s really more a Bad Man. Like Don, Damerel has a great deal of self-awareness about his own flaws. Also an ability to laugh at himself, a quality I find very attractive.

I won’t even try to pose a parallel question about Charles to my “would you call Mélanie a ‘bad girl?'” question from last week. I don’t think anyone would define Charles as remotely close to a “bad boy.” But Quen and Val from Beneath a Silent Moon both are, in different ways. Both are struggling to grow up, both rebelling against and trying to live up to the expectations of their father, the Marquis of Glenister (whom I’d classify as a “bad man”). I’m very fond of Quen, and I like to think he gets a happily-ever-after that will work. Val intrigues me as a character, and I actually think he grows a bit in the course of the book, but he has a long way to go before I’d see him as happily-ever-after material.

What do you think of “bad boy” heroes? What makes you find them sympathetic (or not)? Do you differentiate between “bad boys” and “bad men”? What are your favorites of either type?

I’ve just posted a new letter to the Fraser Correspondence, an originally-coded letter from Mélanie to Raoul.

At a party last night, I told a friend that Mad Men might be the best show I’d ever seen on tv. After hearing similar accolades from numerous friends, I watched the first two seasons on DVD during the recent off season. I devoured each season in a few days (“I’ll just watch one episode tonight” never quite worked). So tonight’s Season 3 premiere will be my first experience of watching the show in “real time.”

There are so many things I love about Mad Men. The writing and acting are fabulous. The recreation of the early 60s is wonderful. The historical novelist in me loves watching a past era brought to such vibrant, impeccably detailed life. And I find it particularly interesting because the Mad Men era is the era when my parents were dating and first married. I have pictures of them from that time period, my dad in suits and white shirts and ties, my mom in heels and fitted suits or dresses, her hair permed. So different from my memories of them in the 70s.

But what fascinates me the most about Mad Men is the wonderful moral ambiguity of the characters. They all have flaws, many of them (notably including the “hero” or at least protagonist, Don Draper,) very major flaws, and yet there are moments when I find myself feeling sympathy for all of them. Over the (beautifully structured) arc of a season, the story shifts so we see the situation from the view points of various characters. I worry about these characters, far more than I do about far more heroic yet less real characters on other shows. As funny and cynical as Man Men can be, there are moments that are heartbreaking.

Do you watch Mad Men? What do you like most about the show? What do you think of the characters? What do you think of morally ambiguous characters in general? What makes them engage your sympathies or fail to do so?

On another note, I’ve just posted a new letter to the Fraser Correspondence, Charles’s 1814 birthday letter to Mélanie. Those of you who are following the Fraser Correspondence, what do you think of the differing tones in Charles’s and Mélanie’s birthday letters to each other (I posted Mel’s to Charles last week) early in their marriage?

Pam Rosenthal had a wonderful post on History Hoydens recently about period clothing in the wonderful movie Milk and the fascinating television show Mad Men and in historical fiction. As I blogged about earlier on History Hoydens, one of the things I loved about Milk was its wonderfully vivid recreation, in settings and costumes, of San Francisco in the 70. At times I felt I was watching scenes from my childhood. I recently started watching Mad Men (I’m in the midst of catching up on season one with dvds). It’s a riveting, layered show, that brings to life New York in the early 1960s. It’s the era when my parents were dating and first married. I have pictures of them in similar clothes to those in the show, my dad in suits and ties and gleaming white shirts, my mom in fitted dresses and suits that required a girdle and a structured bra. By the time I remember them, in the 70s, my dad’s version of formal was a turtleneck under a sports coat, and my mom usually wore jeans to work or Diane von Furstenberg-type dresses that were fluid and much less structured. They look like different people from the couple in polished, formal clothes in those early 60s photographs.

Clothes are so much a part of defining a character. As Pam wrote, But as a writer I’m more interested in the clothes from the inside out. The way they make us feel when we wear them. Because our clothes may be our most consistent guides and goads to who we try to be in a world we didn’t create; our nakedness when we’re alone an intermittent reminder that we aren’t exactly those people; our nakedness with a lover a way of revealing this fact.

I love clothes, both as a writer and in real life. I’m looking forward to the Academy Awards tomorrow night, partly because I love movies, but also because I love looking at the clothes :-). I love the way dressing each day let’s one put on a costume in a sense, decide who one wants to be that day and which clothes best fit the role (the former actress in me). As a writer, I think a lot about the clothes my characters wear and what that says about them. I love to pour over Regency fashion plates and think about which clothes would fit which character. Sometimes I think about what sort of clothes my characters would wear if they were living in the present day, which can be an interesting way to get a new take on the characters.

I like to describe clothes as the characters interact with them. I think quite a bit is revealed about Charles and Mélanie in the first scene between them in Secrets of a Lady where Charles shrugs out of his evening coat sparing a silent curse for the close-fitting passions of the day while Mélanie unwinds the voluminous folds of her cashmere shawl, peels off her gloves, unwinds the ivory satin ribbons that crisscrossed her silk-stockinged ankles. Charles is impatient with clothing and doesn’t think about it much. Mélanie removes each layer with care. I changed the color of Mélanie’s dress in that scene several times, until I settled on champagne-colored silk, which immediately seemed right. Writing this post, I realized there’s also a metaphorical element in that Charles and Mel are undressing in that first scene, removing the layers of clothing that define and contain their roles, in the way they will strip away layers of secrets in the course of the story. Later in the book, Mélanie thinks She felt naked and vulnerable, as though the layers of goffered linen and pin-tucked sarcenet and rushed velvet had been stripped from her body. Layers that constrained her but also defined who she was, who had been for seven years. I think I pay particular attention to clothes and accessories when I’m writing about Mélanie because she’s always playing a role. One of the first lines I wrote about Jeremy Roth was where he thinks that Mel looked like a woman who always wore earrings, which I think says a lot about both Mélanie and Roth. In Beneath a Silent Moon, Mélanie wears a shirt and breeches for a couple of nighttime adventures. I hadn’t planned that in advance, but when I got to the scene where she and Charles go to explore Dunmykel’s secret passage, it occurred to me that Mel, who always dresses for the part, almost certainly would wear breeches on occasion and would probably have packed them on this trip, knowing the sort of adventures she and Charles might encounter at Dunmyel. That led to the sequence later where she’s mistaken for a boy by the smugglers. The morning following the first scene, Mélanie thinks that She’d exchanged last night’s shirt and breeches for a cambric morning dress, scalloped and threaded through with peach silk ribbon. The ensemble of a decorous wife. Like me, Mel understands that the right clothing defines a character.

Writers, how do you approach clothing your characters? Readers, do you notice details about clothing in books? Any examples that particularly stand out? What sort of clothes do you think Mélanie and Charles and the other characters in their world would wear if they were living today? Has anyone scene Mad Men and/or Milk? Planning to watch the Academy Awards?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Lady Frances to Raoul O’Roarke about the dinner party Mélanie was planning with Isobel Lydgate a couple of weeks ago.