Note to Self: Face the Consequences

"The good ended happily and the bad ended unhappily. That is what fiction means." —Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
It happened like this:  my current work in progress, My Father's Son, has a strong backdrop of true history, but I'm not certain if it can be classified as historical fiction.  I haven't taken a real person and true circumstances and humanized them out of the history books as did MM Bennetts in Of Honest Fame, or, created characters to orbit around historical figures as in Georgette Heyer's An Infamous Army.

Rather, I've come up with my own cast of characters caught up in sometimes fictional events (a brigade of black-ops attempting to broker a treaty with French Royalists), but real events in others (the Vienna conference, Napoleon's 100 days, the battle of Waterloo).  They stumble over, evade or work with Fouche, Talleyrand, Metternich, Castlereagh and Wellington.  Does that still qualify as historical fiction?  Or, would it be more accurate to call it historical romance?

And, then there's this whole other genre that I've been hearing more and more about:  Regency romance—"Regency" referring to the era when the Prince of Wales ruled in the stead of Mad King George, his father, from 1811 to 1820.  My series of stories centers in England, begins in 1809 and stretches out from there.  Would it be accurate to classify My Father's Son as a Regency romance?  Danged if I know.

I decided some investigation was in order.  I checked out a certain book and got a bucket full of muck for my trouble.  If that's the best example of Regency romance there is, I'm really glad I don't fit into that genre.  For the record, what I've read of Georgette Heyer isn't Regency romance either.  It's historical fiction.

Query: is not the entire point of Austenophiles' obsession with the Regency era the civility of the age?  Aren't people drawn to the clear expectations, rules of conduct and definitive social mores that leave a person anchored and understanding how and when to act if they wish to be part of that society?  If they want to be treated like a lady?  Act like one and your prince charming will eventually find you, even if he doesn't have ₤10,000 a year.

In Lost in Austen (the bottom of my list of all P&P incarnations), the modern-girl character, Amanda, explains her obsession by the gentlemanly manners.  She wanted her man to treat her like a lady.  Ironically, that particular wish backfires on her when she almost gets what she wants, but then her man discovers she's a very modern girl in the loosest sense of the word.  They make him out to be a prig at that point.  It's sad how quickly a gentleman becomes a misanthrope when his social mores are no longer convenient.

I have heard it argued time and again that lascivious living has been around as long as there have been men and women, and I heartily agree.  More still, I will be the first one to admit that the Regency era was legend for its salacious, riotous living, particularly the Prince Regent and his cadre of hangers-on.  Be that as it may, when I think Regency, I think Jane Austen, and she had nothing but contempt for the Prince of Wales and his lifestyle.

There are those who believe it hypocritical to pretend everything was shiny and glorious and everyone acted properly in that era.  Take, for instance, the travesty of a film Mansfield Park (Miramax 1999), hands down the worst JA adeptation of all time.  They sold it as the naughtiest Jane Austen ever.  Dear Jane would have spun in her grave to know how they twisted and defiled her masterpiece.  I felt the writers and producers failed to even grasp Ms. Austen's theme and, more sadly, flipped it on its ear.

Of course adultery, infidelity and riotous living occurred and regularly.  Rogues and rakes abounded.  Jane Austen made use of them.  She never lived in a cloister.  Sense and Sensibility overflows with nonconformity.  Marianne Dashwood plainly reveals her infatuation with John Willoughby who has already fathered an illegitimate child and abandoned the mother.  Colonel Brandon loved a fallen woman until the day she died, then took upon himself the care of her daughter.  All society assumes "his ward" his love child.  Even perfect Edward Ferrars is drawn into a clandestine romance by a woman who seduces his brother into betraying him and running away with her.

In Mansfield Park, Maria Bertram has an adulterous affair with Henry Crawford and ultimately lives with him, estranging herself from her family forever.  In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia Bennet elopes with George Wickham who refuses to marry her until coerced by Mr. Darcy.  Lizzie delivers one of the best (and most subtle) stingers ever when Lydia boasts she'll find husbands for all her sisters.  "I don't particularly care for your manner of getting husbands."

EmmaNorthanger AbbeyPersuasionLady Susan:  in virtually every one of her published works, Jane Austen makes use of improper behavior to propel her stories forward, create themes, and develop strong, believable characters.  But, she never, ever stoops to the salacious.  She relies on powerful writing, rather than titillation to speak for her.  Most importantly, she creates people in her books with character and integrity, with the strength to live by their convictions and sometimes suffer the unhappiness that comes as a consequence.  That, in my opinion, explains Ms. Austen's enduring appeal.

When one ponders her works, one comes to the realization that although she is the daughter of a clergyman, Ms. Austen never preaches.  Ever.  She doesn't judge or condemn or vilify.  Rather, quite simply, the actions of her characters produce consequences, usually for the offenders and for everyone around them.  Mr. Darcy would never have come to Lizzie's rescue if Lydia's actions didn't threaten to socially ruin the entire family.  Mr. Knightly just about busts a gut when he fears Frank Churchill has broken Emma Woodhouse's heart with his double dealing with Jane Fairfax who herself makes herself ill with heartbreak and shame.

I believe failure to include era-appropriate social consequences handicaps contemporary writers who place their characters in remote time periods.  We live in a society where pretty much anything goes.  If it feels good, do it.  There are no moral absolutes, just as long as what you are doing harms no one else.  Often times, we even dismiss that caveat.  The concept of accepting or rejecting a person's actions according to one's own value system is so politically incorrect, people have grown afraid of speaking out for what they believe in, no matter how morally abhorrent.  (Another fantastic irony I can't wrap my brain around).

Leo Tolstoy understood the power of social consequences over his characters and the value to his story.  He writes about love, lust, passion, obsession and betrayal in Anna Karenina.  However, his tragedy stems from the social consequences: Anna's ostracism and subsequent isolation, her loneliness and despair, her utter dependence upon Vronsky and fear of his disaffection which, ultimately, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  From this trailer, it appears that Focus Film's latest film adaptation to be released in November, 2012, the writers and directors get it.

In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price, a poor dependent cousin living solely on the good will of her more fortunate if less moral cousins, learns the importance and the sublime difficulty of standing by what she believes in.  More still, she is forced to choose between two very strong beliefs, that of gratitude, obedience and filial duty vs. remaining true to herself and demanding the same of those around her.  She does so despite the fortune and a life of ease which would have bought the compliance of just about any other young lady in her circumstances.

How much more poignant, in-depth and conflicted is such a theme compared to a story which centers solely on Fanny's vacillation between  Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram until Henry Crawford betrays her and relieves her of the decision?  One Fanny discovers herself and her strengths, a truly poetic journey.  The other flutters whichever way the wind blows, her great redeeming quality her ability to write about it.  The BBC's 1983 adaptation with Nicholas Farrell and Sylvetra Le Touzel is the only version I've ever seen that demonstrated a true understanding of the story's complexities.

No, I don't expect all writers of Regency era fiction to force their subjects into the same narrow focus as did Jane Austen.  Plenty of 19th century British writers illuminated the seamier side of life.  William Makepeace Thackeray subtitled Vanity Fair: A Novel Without A Hero quite simply because none of his characters fit the moniker.  Rather, he portrayed his primary protagonist, Becky Sharp, as exactly the opposite.  He wrote about the stringent social mores and hypocrisies of society, but ever and always, he wrote about the consequences of flaunting them.  I believe as writers, we shortchange ourselves and the reader when we fail to do the same.


Linda Banche said...

You're right. Too many regencies these days are costume dramas--modern stories with the characters wearing different clothes when they're wearing clothes. Too much explicit sex in those regencies, but that's another story.

Still, there are a lot of vocal people who like them. One reviewer dinged me because I used some regency phrases (By thunder!) and referred to Astley's Amphitheatre. Said the references threw her out of the story. I can't see how, since the story is a Regency.

But there are those of us who want history in our historicals. So keep writing what you're writing. We'll find you.

Unknown said...

Thanks. Power to the purests! Historical fiction is the foundation of Regency, and if they want to write something else, call it what it is and write a Harlequin romance.