The Philadelphia Story


11.17.12TracyMelHappy mid-winter holiday season! I’m starting to relax into the holiday season despite the seemingly ever-increasing To Do list – this year complicated by a certain one-year-old birthday party and having a new release out.

As I’ve been taking time to promote His Spanish Bride, it occurs to me that the story of Malcolm and Suzanne’s wedding combines two literary traditions – wedding stories and holiday stories. I have a fondness for both types of story, from wedding stories like The Philadelphia Story and Busman’s Honeymoon to holiday tales like Lauren Willig’s delightful The Mischief of the Mistletoe and Deanna Raybourn’s new novella Silent Night. I think what i like about both types of story is that they bring together friends and family with plentiful opportunity for conflicts, reunions, and revelry. Parents and children, sibling rivalry, ex-lovers home for the holidays or attending the same wedding–or perhaps one disrupting the wedding of another. Jane Austen recognized the benefit of such gatherings for bringing characters together. Emma opens with a wedding and includes a holiday party.

Both weddings and holidays involve certain traditions which give a frame to the story yet to which individual characters give their own unique spin. It’s fun seeing fictional characters, even historical ones, go through some of the same traditions we go through ourselves, and also fun to see the differences. Malcolm and Suzanne’s wedding takes place at the British embassy and is wrapped up in the investigation of a missing letter that could drive a wedge between Britain and her Spanish allies in the war against the French.They slip away from their betrothal party for a bit of skullduggery, and Suzanne arrives at the solution to the mystery on their wedding night. Both their motives for entering into the marriage are complicated, and perhaps they are even deceiving themselves about the true reasons. The story ends at an embassy Christmas party at which, again typically for them, Malcolm and Suzanne are wrapping up the investigation.

What are some of your favorite holiday and wedding stories?

Speaking of the holidays, with this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition, I’ve jumped to December 1815 with letter from Mel/Suzette to Simon.

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“Squaring the triangle” is a term the playwright hero of S.N. Behrman’s No Time for Comedy flippantly uses to describe what he does writing romantic comedies. I was thinking about this last week watching one of my favorite television shows, The Good Wife. The heroine is back together, at least on the surface, with the husband who betrayed her. Peter Florek is a deeply flawed character, yet I find him likable in many ways, and in last week’s episode I genuinely believed him when he said he’d fallen back in love with his life. I almost found myself wanting their marriage to work out. And that’s despite the fact that I really like Alicia’s colleague and old love, Will, and most of the time I desperately want the two of them to get together.

That’s the key to writing a really fascinating triangle, I think. Having all the characters interesting and sympathetic enough that one is somewhat torn about who ends up with whom. Which of course can create problems with also having a satisfying happily ever after, if such an ending is the goal of the story. As I’ve mentioned before, I think one of my favorite plays/movies, The Philadelphia Story, does this brilliantly in that both Mike and Dexter are sympathetic and possible options for Tracy (both much better than her stuffy fiancé George). I think often the viewer isn’t quite sure who will end up with whom. And yet the ending feels very right (at least to me).

Both Vienna Waltz and The Mask of Night have several triangles. I don’t really want Mélanie/Suzanne to go back to Raoul, at least not in that way (or mostly not in that way, to paraphrase both Charles and Mel in Mask). But I’m very fond of Raoul and I can definitely see that tug between them. As Jeanne adeptly pointed out in last week’s comments, he represents a world in which Mel can practice her talents to the fullest and be herself, whereas in Charles’s world she has to work more behind-the-scenes (though she manages rather a lot of adventure in any case). Raoul ended up much more sympathetic than I had at first envisioned when I wrote Secrets of a Lady, and I think that makes the dynamic among the three of them much more interesting. Not to mention that in addition to the residual romantic tension, there’s a spy dynamic, ideological issues, and a father-son story between Raoul and Charles that takes on more prominence in Mask.

The plot of Vienna Waltz is more or less built on triangles–the triangle of Tatiana, Tsar Alexander, and Metternich which forms the set-up of the murder discovery and investigation; Suzanne/Mel, Malcolm/Charles, and Tatiana (which, whatever else it is or is not, is certainly an emotional tug-of-war); and real life triangles such as both Metternich, the tsar and Wihelmine of Sagan, and Metternich, the tsar, and Princess Catherine Bagration (Metternich and Tsar Alexander definitely carried their rivalry into the boudoir). And then there’s the triangle which is still very much an open question at the end of the book of Dorothée, Count Clam-Martinitz, and Prince Talleyrand. Dorothée isn’t sure at the end of the novel which man she’ll end up with, and that’s certainly a real life triangle in which I can sympathize with all three participants.

What do you think of triangles in books, whether Vienna Waltz and Mask or others? What are some of your favorite literary triangles? Are there times when you’ve been dissatisfied with the resolution of a triangle?

Also feel free to use this space to discuss Vienna Waltz (with or without discussing the triangles in it) and to continue to discuss The Mask of Night.

I’ve just posted a new Fraser Correspondence letter from Raoul to Mel/Suzanne right at the time the events of Vienna Waltz begins.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, 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. Last week’s post was inspired by a wonderful post of Pam Rosenthal’s on History Hoydens. Pam’s blog on History Hoydens this week took off on the 1930s romantic comedies I’d mentioned in my post and as she said social class and escapist glitter in the Depression-era movie, The Philadelphia Story.

My thoughts also drifted to The Philadelphia Story this week, particularly after Angelique’s wonderful follow up comments on my post. I got out my video and watched the movie for the umpteenth time. It’s been one of my favorites since I first saw it at the age of ten. Even before that, I’d read and loved the Philip Barry play on which it is based. What struck me watching this time is how, in a movie that says a great deal about love and types of love and in which who will end up with whom is an open question, Tracy and Dexter’s love story is almost entirely in subtext. They talk about their past, but they don’t talk about their present feelings until the very end of the movie, when he proposes. And even that is indirect. Tracy is announcing to the assembled wedding guests that she and her fiancé have called off the wedding. She asks Dexter what to say next, and he feeds her the lines a speech saying that the two years ago I did you out of wedding in this house and I hope to make it up to you by going through with it now as originally planned. Even their brief exchange afterwards doesn’t contain any “I’ve always loved yous”, but the words they do use (“Are you sure?” “Not in the least; but I’ll risk it–will you?” “Oh–I’ll be yare now–I’ll promise to be yare!” “Be whatever you like, you’re my Redhead.”) are somehow more meaningful.

One of my favorite Georgette Heyers, The Grand Sophy, is similar in that hero’s and heroine’s feelings are not expressed either in dialogue or, this being a novel, in inner monologue. Sophy and Charles spar from their first meeting. Perhaps the closest we get to a window into Charles’s feelings is the moment when he looks at Sophy across his young sister’s sickbed as though a thought, blinding in its novelty, had occurred to him. Charles does ask Sophy to marry him but even then either says “I love you” in so many words. In fact his proposal is Will you marry me, vile and abominable girl that you are? and her reply is Yes, but, mind, it is only to save my neck from being wrung!

I first read The Grand Sophy at about the same age I first saw The Philadelphia Story. I remember reading the scenes between Sophy and Charles over and over, trying to tease out who felt what when, trying to decipher clues to their emotions (just as I would look for clues to Tracy’s and Dexter’s feelings whenever I saw The Philadelphia Story)). Much as I love Heyers like Venetia and Frederica, in which there is much more exploration of the characters’ feelings, there’s something fascinating about a story in which so much is unexpressed.

Writing this blog, I tried to think of other stories in which the romance develops without the feelings being verbalized. Mulder and Scully’s love story unfolds without the words being spoken and without the viewer even being quite sure what is happening. Yet the clues are there when you rewatch the episodes (one of the things I love about rewatching Seasons 6 and 7 in particular). Mulder’s I don’t want to risk–losing you in Requiem (the Season 7 finale) is much more powerful than a more explicit declaration of feeling.

Thinking back to my Declarations, Resolutions, & Other Heart-Stopping Moments post, Gil and Ingold in Barbara Hambly’s Darwath Trilogy don’t express their feelings until that last scene where Gil asks Ingold if he wants her to stay with him. Their feelings for each other are more palpable than Charles’s and Sophy’s but expressed in gestures and often as much in what is not said as in what is said. The same is true of Holmes and Russell in Laurie King’s Mary Russell books. The books are first person, so the reader is privy to more of Russell’s feelings than in some of other stories mentioned. But Russell and Holmes never express those feelings to each other. And Holmes finds a way to propose without putting any of it into words (You do realize how potentially disastrous this whole thing is? I am old and set in my ways. I will give you little affection and a great deal of irritation, though heaven knows you’re aware of how difficult I can be). Neither has said “I love you” to the other through the eight books of the series thus far. Though Holmes’s behavior in those books perhaps contradicts his claim that he would give Russell “little affection and a great deal of irritation.” In fact, to me one of the most romantic lines in the series was in Locked Rooms in which he says (don’t have my copy in front of me so I’m paraphrasing) that he doesn’t think the the sun rising in the west would cause his heart to stop but The sight of my wife going over the rail of a ship might have done the trick however.

My own Charles and Mélanie, as Angelique commented a while back, don’t often verbalize their feelings. Neither says “I love you” in Beneath a Silent Moon, including in the final scene. Charles instead tells Mel he “needs her” which somehow seemed a stronger declaration. They do say “I love you” in the first chapter of Secrets of a Lady, but even then it’s with the slightly embarrassed acknowledgment that the words can seem a cliché (Will it sounds hopelessly redundant if I say I love you too?). Charles tells Mel he loves her again, late in the book, but the words are clipped, almost harsh, wrung out of him by extreme emotion (as is his first declaration of love in the vignette I posted recently). Charles and Mélanie talk in code more than verbalizing their feelings directly. In that, I suspect I was influenced by many of the stories discussed in this post.

Speaking of code, this week’s addition to the Fraser Correspondence is Raoul’s coded reply to Mélanie’s coded letter of last week, inspired by Sharon’s thoughtful and fascinating comments on Mélanie’s letter. Raoul is certainly someone who expresses his feelings in code (if he expresses them at all).

What do you think of love stories in which the romance is expressed in subtext? Do you like them or do you prefer more explicit declarations?

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.

Yesterday I had a few friends over to celebrate midsummer–A Midsummer Night’s Dream party (what’s more fun than a party with a Shakespearean theme?). Rushing around doing party prep during the day, I was listening to Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (one of my favorite musicals), and I found myself thinking about the allure of stories set on midsummer nights.

Shakespeare created a brilliant template with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Under a midsummer moon, lovers find and lose each other, friends become enemies and back again, lines are blurred between classes and between fairies and mortals. Until recently, I didn’t realize how much one of my favorite plays and movies, The Philadelphia Story, owes to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There’s the estranged/divorced married couple, the pre-wedding setting, the characters falling in love (and blurring class lines) under influence of a mind-altering drug, whether it’s the juice of a rare flower or Pommery champagne. Philip Barry even sets the play on midsummer night and explicitly refers to it by having Tracy’s younger sister Dinah say “it’s supposed to be the longest day of the year or something” (to which Tracy, coping with the escalating complications of her wedding day, replies, “I wouldn’t doubt it for a minute.”).

Then there’s A Little Night Music and the movie upon which it is based, Ingmar Bergman’s exquisite Smiles of a Summer Night. Once again lovers change partners beneath a midsummer moon (beautifully evoked by a waltz among birch trees in the opening of A Little Night Music). But while the majority of the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Philadelphia Story end up back with their original partner (Demetrius being a notable exception) in A Little Night Music/Smiles of a Summer Night, the majority of the lovers change partners and end the story with the new partner. One might say that the events of the night help Frederik recover from the madness of his love for his child-bride Anne and back to his far more real love for his former mistress Desirée. “A coherent existence,” as Desirée puts it. Frederik, like The Philadelphia Story’s Tracy Lord, finds his eyes opened in the course of a midsummer night’s adventures.

Beneath a Silent Moon
offers my own take on the midsummer night theme. I actually scoured A Midsummer Night’s Dream for quotes when looking for a title. for the book but couldn’t find one my publisher and I agreed on. I love Beneath a Silent Moon as a title (it was a suggestion of my agent, Nancy Yost) because while it isn’t a quote, to me it conjures up the moon imagery which is so prevalent in Dream. Perhaps not surprisingly, my version of midsummer madness includes lots of spies, smugglers, and secret meetings beneath a silent moon. But the elements are still there. Lovers find and lose each other, partners change, old loves are rekindled. Lovers and lunatics seem not so very far apart. “Love isn’t sensible,” Quen tells his former lover. “Love’s a fire that can’t be contained. Until it burns itself out.”

Writing this blog post, I realized Beneath a Silent Moon even offers it’s own dark twist on theme of a wedding party. Charles and Mélanie aren’t precisely estranged, but they are certainly struggling to define the dynamics of their marriage. And there’s a birch coppice which serves at the setting for midnight adventures, my own homage to the birch wood in A Little Night Music.

At the end of the book, Mélanie thinks, somewhat ironically, of the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Jack shall have Jill; Nought shall go ill. I think that Charles, like Tracy and Frederick and Titania waking from enchantment, finds his eyes opened in the course of the story.

Do you like stories with midsummer settings? Any thoughts on the one’s I’ve mentioned? Any new examples to add? This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is Gisèle’s take on midsummer madness, in a letter to her cousin Aline (Lady Frances’s daughter, married to Geoffrey Blackwell).

Also, all this week I have the honor of being Guest Author on Candice Hern’s wonderful message boards. Do stop by and chat (I have a dread of being the guest author no one asks questions of :-).