Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Study in Scarlet Women

Below is an incomplete list of genteel women from historical romance novels who, each for her own reasons, offers to trade her body & sexual favors for money.  Most offers are accepted, and all but one of the women have sex only with the man they end up with.  The questions these plots raise are complicated: How desperate does a character have to be before she chooses to go this route?  (And is more desperation a better or worse thing in judging her character and sensibilities?)  Is a woman offering her sexual chastity in exchange for money to be pitied, judged, or congratulated on finding she has an asset worth money in such a misogynistic culture?  And, finally, does the mercenary nature of her decision affect the romantic qualities of her story: is her HEA any better or worse than that of a more chaste heroine, and is her ultimate relationship with the hero deeper and more honest, or does it have structural flaws that they will need to patch up before the HEA can be believable?

Here they are.*  You can judge for yourselves.

TITLE:  A Debt of Honor

AUTHOR:  Diana Brown

HEROINE:  Fiona Guthrie

SET UP:  When the hero, Lord Peter Chalmsford, goes haring off after his scapegrace younger brother, he believes that Gerald has taken up with an unscrupulous fille de joie.  He's determined to rescue Gerald before he does something really stupid, like marry her.  When he arrives at Culross Abbey in the Cambridgeshire Fens, he is shown into a room that already contains a beautiful young woman.  He assumes she's the wanton he's protecting Gerald from, so he starts to seduce her and says she can name her price for a night with him.  He later discovers she is actually his host's sister, and thus a proper young woman.

      Fiona's brother's gambling generates a debt of £7,000, which they don't have.  They could sell the Abbey, which costs more to maintain than they can afford, but it has great historical value to Fiona.  Instead, she asks her aunt in London, and is turned down.  On a sudden whim, she goes to Chalmsford and asks him for the money, which initially he is happy to give her.  She insists that he take value for that amount, so could she accept his offer of giving him a night with her in exchange?  He refuses, makes her accept the money on his terms and sets her up with his mother for sponsorship in society.  (He's attracted to her, but her family isn't quite up to the standards he would expect from a potential wife.)

     Fiona considers the £7,000 to be a debt of honor and is desperate to make good.  She ends up winning the money at cards with the villain, and thus is able to pay back Chalmsford, who (of course) assumes she slept with the villain to get the money.  Nonetheless, he offers to marry her (she might be pregnant, he figures), and even after she declines that offer, he pursues her.  The villain's tricks go on a bit too long, but eventually Chalmsford & Fiona clear up all the misunderstandings and are able to marry.

THE OFFER:  £7,000 for one night with her (and -- although this isn't stated explicitly -- her virginity)

ACCEPTED?  No.  In fact, the very offer strikes Chalmsford as repugnant and makes him judge her very harshly indeed.

MY TAKE:  The wrinkle in this plot is that there is an alternative to selling her body: selling the Abbey instead.  At one point in the story, she's willing to give up her virtue for the money she could make selling the Abbey.  (There are timing issues; the moneylenders need repayment immediately, but she could have borrowed the money from Chalmsford, sold the Abbey and repaid him then.)  Later on, she does agree to sell the Abbey, this time to repay Chalmsford the funds expended in buying her brother a commission.  So all along, Fiona's not so very desperate that she has to sell her virtue.  In fact, what makes the most sense is that she values her virtue much less than it would seem to be worth in a man's world of commerce and consideration.  She also argues against the double standard regarding a man's debts of honor and why they don't apply to women.

DESPERATION LEVEL: 4 out of 10 (She had other ways to make that money, as she proves when she makes it gaming and a later sum selling the Abbey.)

DEMONSTRATION OF HER CHARACTER: 8 out of 10 (Fiona makes a strong case for paying her debts.  By modern standards, her valuation of her own chastity seems reasonable and her willingness to solve her brother's problems admirable.)

ROMANTIC QUALITY OF HEA:  7 out of 10  (Chalmsford pursues her even believing that she's slept with the villain; he also realizes too late that what she did took courage.  Plus, he restores the Abbey for her, and we love him for that.)
TITLE: Dearly Beloved

AUTHOR: Mary Jo Putney

HEROINE: Diana Brandelin

SET UP: After a completely implausible wedding, Diana Brandelin (née Mary Elizabeth Diana Lindsay Hamilton) is abandoned by her husband and left to raise a child (miraculously conceived in wedlock, albeit the result of rape) and get on with life.  After seven years of dubious social standing in a small Yorkshire town, Diana takes in a "retired" cyprian, Madeline Gainford, and through her learns of how certain women make a living in London.  Madeline paints a rosy but realistic picture of both the sexual and the commercial side of being a mistress.  Still, when Diana decides to go to London to become a courtesan, Madeline is against the plan.  "It was one matter to sell oneself when there was no choice; it was quite another to do so voluntarily."

    Diana is launched at a demi-rep party, where she meets Gervase, Viscount St. Aubyn.  She knows he's her fate (I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying that he is, in fact, her husband) but he just thinks she's "a beauty, a whore and a mystery."  They enter into a tense negotiation, and a not-entirely-relaxed relationship as lovers.  St. Aubyn distrusts her beauty and sees in her calm, rational discussion about their arrangement risks that she would not be faithful to him.  His cynicism is both evidence of her power over him, and his sourness of disposition; he's wildly attracted to her, but even the force of that attraction is Diana's fault.

     Okay, so we have French spies, the intolerance of the English against gay men, and epilepsy.  Strip all that away, and you finally get to the big reveal, where St. Aubyn learns that his mistress is (ta-dah!) his wife.  He is not pleased, feeling -- not unreasonably -- that she's played him for a fool: either she's lying that she's his wife, or she was lying all the while she was his mistress.  He leaves on this deathless line: "Strange.  I was willing to make a whore my wife, but I find it quite unacceptable that my wife is a whore."  (He has mother issues.)  And, truly, it's not hard to think that revenge was part of Diana's motive for coming to London.  It's plausible she didn't plan to lure St. Aubyn into bed, but there's got to be some anger in her decision to be a courtesan.

      When they next meet, she's playing the part of his wife.  Putney's ingenious in getting Diana out of the coil of lies surrounding her "career" as St. Aubyn's mistress, but that only gets the couple so far.  There's an ending of high drama (weaving together the French spy, intolerance to gays, and even the epilepsy) and then they are happy.

THE OFFER: Very complicated.  Diana is willing to be St. Aubyn's mistress in exchange for those small tokens of appreciation he might bestow.  (Madeline pulls St. Aubyn aside later and behind Diana's back gets a far more generous amount of cash for Diana's favors.)

ACCEPTED?  Yes, eventually.   (These two negotiate like a couple of transactional lawyers.)

MY TAKE: Very dark and twisty, to say the least.  Each of them has had a Bad Childhood, so that all along seems much more of an obstacle to the HEA than the wife/mistress/whore issue.  I don't think her actions are well suited to engender a trusting love in a man as scarred as St. Aubyn, but there's no doubt that they love each other a lot!

DESPERATION LEVEL: 0 out of 10 (She's got £1,000 a year from him, which isn't a massive amount but enough to make it possible to live more comfortably even than she does.)

DEMONSTRATION OF HER CHARACTER: 5 out of 10 (Diana claims she took this step because it was the only way she could imagine meeting a man and falling in love.  Aspects of this make sense: she is gently born, so she actually is of their class.  And she can never marry anyone, so being a mistress isn't a bad compromise from a chance-to-have-sex sense.  It's true St. Aubyn refuses to have anything to do with her, thus explaining her not trying to contact him before taking any other action -- but I take points off for her decision not to notify the solicitor that she'd borne St. Aubyn a child.  She really ought to have done that much.  Although, he might have taken the child away from her, but then if that's the issue uppermost in her mind, she should have just stayed in Yorkshire and raised Geoffrey.  So I kind of get it, and I kind of don't.)

ROMANTIC QUALITY OF HEA:  8 out of 10  (But not because of the mistress/wife thing; I actually like this book better because of the two damaged people healing each other aspect.  I'd have been happier if that had been more of the plot than, say, the French spy.)
TITLE:  His Lordship's Mistress

AUTHOR: Joan Wolf

HEROINE: Jessica O'Neill (née Andover)

SET UP: Jessica Andover is trying hard to save the family horse farm, Winchester, for her two half-brothers.  Their father, her step-father, was a wastrel, and the farm is in debt.  She gives a mortgage to a benevolent neighbor, but when the neighbor dies, his son demands payment or else marriage.  She knows from watching her mother's second marriage how much a woman stands to lose in her marriage, so she decides to go another route.  After borrowing the money to pay off the hateful son, she goes to London, gets a job as an actress with the stage name Jessica O'Neill, and chooses the Earl of Linton to be her protector.

     She is focused on the precise amount she needs to get Winchester free of debt, but not so focused that she doesn't fall in love with Linton and he with her.  He wants to marry her, and initially she says no, but then wonders if it could be done.  A conversation with a member of Linton's family convinces her it could never be done, and when she finally has the money for the principal and interest on the mortgage, she leaves him.

     Because she never told anyone her real name, it takes the sheer coincidence that his nephew is going to the same school as Jessica's brothers to allow Linton to find her.  This time, he (with help from his sister) is able to convince her that they can marry without the social firmament collapsing.

THE OFFER:  She'll be his mistress for an undisclosed but very generous sum per month.

ACCEPTED?  Oh, yeah.

MY TAKE:  Well, it's a wonderful romance, as last year's discussions in Romlandia confirm.  Certainly Wolf wants us to see Jessica's actions as both necessary and principled.  Linton is presented as the very best of gentlemen, and when he says to his sister that Jessica has more courage in her little finger than most men he knew had in their entire bodies, it's a swoon-worthy moment.  But before we throw her a parade, consider this:  She knows that being an actress and then a mistress will make it impossible for her to marry.  But that rather suits her all along.  One of the adjustments she has to make at the end of the book is to see marriage to Linton as preferable to a life of independence at Winchester.  I think there's more to that cost-benefit analysis than perhaps we realize.  Of course we know how it will come out (she's dead miserable without him) but if she hadn't fallen in love with her protector, I think Jessica was quite comfortable to have traded her marriageability for money.

DESPERATION LEVEL: 9 out of 10 (She might have been able to find someone to marry if she'd worked hard at it, but there was a lot if in that route, and she knew her fortunes were more secure in the path she chose.)

DEMONSTRATION OF HER CHARACTER: 10 out of 10  (No doubt about it, she's a great heroine.  A natural actress, a gifted horsewoman, a deeply satisfying lover -- Linton's not wrong to praise her.)

ROMANTIC QUALITY OF HEA:  9 out of 10 (I'm taking a point off for the loss of some of her freedom and independence.  As the Countess of Linton, she'll lead a much more circumspect life than she has been.  And Jessica never comes across as the sort of person who won't notice those restrictions just because she's in lurve.  Instead, I would predict she'll chafe at some of her new life, enjoy enough other bits, and fill in the spaces with good works and, of course, children.)
TITLE:  Lady in Blue

AUTHOR:  Lynn Kerstan 

HEROINE:  Clare Easton (née Easter Wilhelmina Clare)

SET UP: Brynmore Talgarth, Earl of Caradoc, has good reason (possibly needing some suspended disbelief) for wanting to bed only virgins: he watched his father die a repulsive death from syphilis and vowed never to be like his father in that regard.  Still a man has needs, so his solution is a form of (expensive) serial monogamy: he hires a virgin as his mistress.  When he meets Clare, she is a mystery to him (and to us) but he's physically attracted to her.  He agrees to her terms and that sets in motion a series of almost madcap (without the humor) adventures and surprisingly little sex.  But they do eventually have happy sex, and after everything is sorted out, he marries her.

     Half the book has elapsed before we even learn Clare's backstory, which we need to know in order gauge her actions.  She's the only daughter of a widowed country vicar with a bit of a drinking problem.  When a rather wild young woman comes to their village and he learns she is pregnant, he marries her to give her unborn twin sons a name.  He dies five months later, and so never learns that Aldis is quite mad.  Clare, only a child at the time, endures fanatical punishments from Aldis in an effort to protect the twin boys.  Aldis finally dies, but of course there's precious little money in their village, so even the parish cannot support them.  Clare moves to dodgy accommodations in London and works 16 hours a day as a seamstress, but the money will barely permit her to feed two growing boys.  After a year of this, she is thinking about trying to contact a woman her mother had known -- yes, it's our old friend the Kindly Madam.  Clare still wouldn't have gone except that two drunken louts accost her and when her brothers try to help her, they sustain serious injuries.  The next day, she walks four miles to see "Florette."

     As with Dearly Beloved, the conflict between the characters comes down to rotten childhoods.  Clare falls in love, but when the subplot shoots Caradoc, she prays to God for his survival and lo! he survives.  Clare now reckons she has to keep her end of the bargain, and as she'd promised God not to sleep with Caradoc again, that pretty much only leaves marriage.  But when he proposes she still says no, and he actually has to trick her to get them legally wed.

THE OFFER:  In exchange for £10,500 (10,000 guineas), she will sleep with him for one night and then they'll see how it goes and maybe she'll stick around.

ACCEPTED?  Yes.

MY TAKE:  I love Lynn Kerstan's shorter-format Regencies, so I wish I could say this was a great book.  Clare definitely wins the prize as the most desperate of the heroines, but there are a ton of secondary characters, the subplot is odd, and Clare's religious beliefs just a bit suspect given how much loony abuse she endured.  Caradoc seems very adolescent and at times rather stupid.  By contrast, His Lordship's Mistress's Linton and Jessica both seem a lot more mature.

DESPERATION LEVEL: 10 out of 10 (When you finally find out what she's endured and how hard she worked to take care of her brothers without selling her virtue, Clare gets full props.)

DEMONSTRATION OF HER CHARACTER: 5 out of 10 (See?  A lot of desperation doesn't equal a lot of character.  Clare strikes a good bargain on its face, but she seems to have missed the point of what Caradoc wanted.  He explicitly tells her he wants a friend, lover, etc., and that doesn't seem like an unreasonable return on a 10,000 guinea investment.  But Clare won't give up the goods -- in this case, willingness to feel sexual pleasure -- until her feelings are engaged, and after that happens, she feels guilty and as though her original sin has been compounded.  In other words, she can prostitute herself for her brothers, but she mustn't feel good about it -- even when that's part of the deal!)

ROMANTIC QUALITY OF HEA:  6 out of 10 (It's not that she was his mistress that causes the problem with this HEA, it's the hugger-mugger way everything shakes out.  Caradoc almost dies but still she won't marry him when he finally proposes?  Eh, but they really do love each other, so I'll be generous here.)
TITLE:  A Precious Jewel

AUTHOR:  Mary Balogh 

HEROINE:  Priscilla Wentworth, aka Prissy 

SET UP:  When her father and brother die unexpectedly, Priscilla is taken in, grudgingly, by her cousins.  Oswald treats her as a servant, complete with the sense that he'd like to take liberties with her person.  So she decamps to London to see Miss Blythe, her former governess.  Priscilla has a notion that she can be usefully employed at Miss Blythe's finishing school for young women.  Only that's not precisely the establishment that Miss Blythe is running, and when Priscilla finds that out, it's too late.  Irene & Oswald won't take her back, even for the purposes of getting Priscilla married off, and Miss Blythe can't let Priscilla stay indefinitely without working.

     Prissy, as she's known to the customers and other girls, makes the best of it.  When our hero, Sir Gerald Stapleton, shows up, she has been working for a couple months.  Sir Gerald has particular preferences in bed; she follows his directions to the letter (easily the least erotic sex scene in the history of romance novels -- there is no brand of vanilla bland enough to describe what he likes in bed) and he becomes a regular.  She even likes him, perhaps because he's roughly the sort of fellow she might have married had her brother lived.  Two months later, after Prissy is beaten by a customer who wanted something from her that is forbidden by Miss Blythe's rules (fun to imagine what perversion that would have been), Sir Gerald makes Prissy his mistress.

     I've written about this book elsewhere, so I'll keep the summary short(er).  Being a mistress is a huge step up for her.  She gets a house that allows her to keep some private space that Sir Gerald will never enter: a room of her own.  Every time his feelings for her lurch forward, he's torn between desiring her and thinking it a colossal nuisance having a mistress.  And he's conscious that he does not want to know her as a person, and resents the occasions that she makes him think of her that way.  He doesn't seem to know why he wants her to accompany him to his estate.  Their relationship evolves in a back and forth, sometimes with greater intimacy and sometimes with less.

     Almost a year after she first "pleasures" Sir Gerald, Priscilla realizes that she's pregnant and that she must leave him.  She concocts a story about an old suitor wanting to marry her despite her past, and he buys it.  Through Miss Blythe, she has a place to go: a village along the southern coast.  It's a point of honor to tell the village vicar and his wife the truth of who she was and how she got there; she feels much more human after she's done so.  And of course Sir Gerald finally shows up -- he's slow, but he gets there in the end -- and is able to convince her that he wants to marry her because he loves her.

THE OFFER: Variable; at first it's for an hour with her (rate unknown), then to have her live in a little house as his mistress (rate also unknown).

ACCEPTED?  She has no choice in the first instance, but says yes in the second.

MY TAKE:  I actually respect these two more the second time around.  Sir Gerald has -- you guessed it! -- childhood issues, but as I reviewed his more commercial relationship with Prissy, I realize how much honesty Balogh has given us.  (Or else her views on prostitution fit my own, namely that it's a relationship that allows a man to see and treat a woman as something other than as a person of equal moral weight.)  The book is all about the development of their relationship, and apart from some implausible hiccups at the end, the HEA is in some ways the most organic.  He really needed her for his very happiness, and that's why he wanted to marry her even before he'd learned to stop thinking of her as a "whore."

DESPERATION LEVEL: 5 out of 10  (Priscilla has options available to her, but she figures that prostitution is more "honest.")

DEMONSTRATION OF HER CHARACTER: 7 out of 10 (She's a good girl -- Sir Gerald keeps saying that -- and the proof of that comes quite late.  But I personally am not as impressed with her honesty in telling the village that's she a former mistress and pregnant.  The milk of human kindness and Christian charity are all very well in theory, but there was a huge risk it wouldn't work out in reality.  And telling the truth can be, on occasion, be a selfish act: it can require others to do some heavy lifting to accommodate what facts they never asked to know.  In the end, I think she got lucky and found the one magical village in the UK with all nice people in it.)

ROMANTIC QUALITY OF HEA:  8 out of 10  (Even with the support of Sir Gerald's good friends, the Earl and Countess of Severn, they have a rough road to hoe, what with the number of people who know Priscilla was one of "Kit Blythe's girls."  I think Caradoc (from Lady in Blue) had it right when he said that by the time his and Clare's daughters were presented, no one would remember how he'd appeared with Clare before their betrothal was announced.  But Sir Gerald and Lady Stapleton may need longer than that; her past is going to be an on dit for a long time.) 
Final thoughts?  Well, I truly didn't have a coherent thesis when I started this.  But now, ten hours and five books later, here's what I think:
 ♥ That the degree of desperation isn't the only factor in how we judge these women; their intelligence and sensibilities pre-date the decision to sell their virtue and survive it as well.
 ♥ That the author has some heavy lifting to pull off the HEA and really get us to believe these couples want to be together despite the protector-mistress relationship in their past -- if for no other reason than that the hero has to see the heroine as his moral equal.
 ♥ And that the silliest heroine was the one who didn't see the value in having a good time sexually while she was at it.

* I limited myself to books I'd read recently or knew well enough to discuss.  Thus, this is by no means a complete list, and I'll happily include any other stories you want.  Just leave a comment with the title and author.

4 comments:

  1. I always thought A PRECIOUS JEWEL was one of the best examples of the courtesan book, because for most of the novel, the two characters see each other in a very businesslike way. In most courtesan books, the romance appears much more quickly.

    I may be weird, but that honesty made me like the book a lot.

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  2. Victoria -- I love the book for its differentness. The hero was different. The heroine was the same, but in a completely different pre-romance role. Their relationship was different. Even their romance -- as you say -- was different.

    And the ending was different, if only for Sir Gerald's honesty at how much he missed and needed her. Most heroes aren't that needy, and thus not that convincing.

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  3. I loved Dearly Beloved, not because it makes a whole lot of sense when one analyzes it, but I became engrossed in the story and suspended disbelief. MJP nearly always works for me.

    I recently read His Lordship's Mistress and enjoyed it very much. But hero is just such a complete sweetheart I can't help feeling the heroine got super lucky.

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  4. Miranda -- Yeah, Joan Wolf's worlds are all very very perfect. (I should talk -- one of my hero's is loaded even before he becomes a federal judge.) But I always let her have that because she does the angsty goodness so well.

    I actually prefer A Kind of Honor to His Lordship's Mistress -- the dilemma the couple face is very intense. A tiny bit of happy coincidence at the end, but not nearly so much as what she gives Jessica & Linton.

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