Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Marriage of Convenience

I'm still on a Betty Neels kick, but I think that hoary convention of The Marriage of Convenience crops up in other books, albeit not with the frequency it enjoys in the Neels canon.  Anyway, what I'm interested in is the psychology of The Marriage of Convenience.

I'm reading this -- not dog-eared, but dog-chewed -- copy of An Unlikely Romance.  (The Uncrushable Jersey Dress review is here; their discussion on the book is here.)  In it, Krijn proposes marriage to Beatrice (aka Trixie) because he needs to finish his book on endocrinology.  (Oh, come on -- all you authors and writers out there, admit it: a wife would make your life easier, if for no other reason than to have someone answer the phone and say, "Brilliant Genius residence.  No, I'm sorry, Brilliant Genius is not available.  Perhaps I can help you?")  

In a variety of ways, Neels telegraphs to the reader that Krijn is not in love with Trixie-Beatrice when he proposes, or rather he has no clue that he might be in love with her.  So his motivation is pretty basic:  he may be unconsciously attracted to her subtle qualities of intelligence, decency, and mousiness, and in all that see someone he can stand to marry and then ignore.  If he were being brutally honest, he would acknowledge that by marrying her he's giving up any hope of falling in love himself.  Further, his offer exchanges Trixie-Beatrice's opportunity to fall in love freely for her financial security.  Also, she will be rescued from both an unhappy home life (orphan raised in cold household of aunt & uncle who consider Trixie uninteresting and unattractive) and an unappealing career.  (Trixie has trained as a nurse, but her superiors make it clear to her that she's not exactly taking the profession by storm.)  He is, in the tradition of all Neels heroes, rich with nice homes and the generosity to insist she buy nice things.

Thus a marriage of convenience makes sense from his point of view.  She's not nearly as good looking as he is, but he doesn't care about appearances (other than to be well, if conservatively, dressed) and his friends -- mostly professional colleagues -- don't care either.  He's perhaps lonely, and may have some instinct that just a bit more social interaction would be a nice addition to his life.  He volunteers to take Trixie-Beatrice shopping, which is absurd from any rational perspective -- the average husband doesn't much like accompanying his wife on shopping trips for her clothes -- but might show his commitment to the marriage.  He knows he wants a wife for social purposes, and said wife should be appropriately dressed, so some passive encouragement may be called for.  (He accompanies her but doesn't actually help her pick out clothes; in effect, he helps her spend his money).

Why, though, does Trixie marry him?  She says yes with no emotional connection, but at various points in their "engagement" she reflects that she could change her mind.  She quickly sees, though, that she loves him.  She may have gotten engaged for one set of reasons, but she's marrying him because she's in love and so not marrying him would be even worse.  My question, then, is why marry someone you believe is not in love with you?  (It should be said that Krijn isn't in love with anyone else, either, although that never stopped a Neels heroine from fearing the worst more than once before the denouement.)

Freud thought mental health (and thus the goal of psychoanalysis) was to love and to work.  Wouldn't we add the ability to be loved, to see oneself as a worthy object of love, to that list?  Trixie doesn't think that she's worthy of being loved (her aunt and uncle will have reinforced that impression), which is surely a factor in her decision to marry Krijn.  But she's on notice even before the wedding that Krijn sees her differently than others do.  He accompanies her to Aunt Alice's house to announce their engagement, and he can see how negligently she is treated, and how differently Aunt Alice treats him.  Trixie can hear it in his voice, and his respect and regard for her is strengthened when he refers to her as "Beatrice" in front of Aunt Alice.

Now, about these two names.  Her given name is Beatrice, but when she was orphaned, Aunt Alice insisted on calling her Trixie even though Alice's own daughter Margaret gets no such demeaning nickname.  Betty Neels isn't one for nicknames; Euphemia remains Euphemia, Cassandra doesn't become Cassie, and so forth.  So why is Trixie not only called Trixie by her family, but referred to as Trixie in the third-person when it's her own POV?  Only Krijn calls her Beatrice, refers to her as Beatrice, and thinks about her as Beatrice.

I kept expecting Neels to do something clever with this, like have Trixie's third-person POV name shift (finally!) to Beatrice when she learns she's loved by Krijn.  But no, even in the penultimate paragraph, Trixie is still Trixie.

I have some experience with this.  I was christened Magdalen because there was a tradition of naming one's offspring after one's siblings (a tradition not entirely dead in the most recent generation, but certainly on life-support) and my aunt is Magdalen.  (She was named for her grandmother, who was named for some Magdalen before her.)  That tradition came from my mother's family; my dad's rule for baby-naming was that the name had to have a nickname.  (He was named George, which has no good nicknames, so his own experience may have had something to do with all this.)  Ergo, I was called "Maggie."  (Use it and your motherboard will die a horrible death.)

I tried other names, but when I'd finally grown up enough to see myself as worthy of such an unusual and handsome name, I told everyone that's what I wanted to be called.  (I asked Ross what one word he would use to characterize my name, and he said "dignified."  I guess I still have some work to do to live up to that!)  It was a huge hassle, I was told, and many of my family members took a long time (up to and including "never") to get used to the change.

For me, though, it was a matter of identity.  I wasn't "Maggie" and when that sense of being misnamed got acute enough, I insisted on being called by *my* name.  (As I pointed out to my mother -- one of the people who never made the change -- it's not like I had picked a name at random and was insisting on being called "Krystal" or "Tiffani."  This was the name they had picked, after all.)

Back to Trixie.  She uses the name her unloving relatives gave her, but somehow Krijn sees through that and calls her by her "rightful" name.  That's an act of respect, certainly, if not attention.  It's not enough on its own to get Trixie-Beatrice to assert her right to be loved.  That takes the slight attentions of Andre, one of Krijn's extended family, who sends Trixie flowers and *shock* telephones her to arrange for platonic meetings.  (Tellingly, the card accompanying the bouquet uses the name "Trixie," which is intriguing as she must surely have been introduced to all of Krijn's family as Beatrice.)

It's not that Andre's attentions trigger Beatrice's self-confidence so much as they show her what she's missing from Krijn.  Eventually -- as happens with almost all Neels heroines -- her misery causes her to do something drastic, which in turn prompts the hero to show up finally ready to be honest with her and have her be honest with him.

That's the risk with the marriage of convenience in romance novels: the hopelessly tangled misunderstanding.  (I would imagine the risk in a real life marriage of convenience might be falling in love with someone else, or perhaps having the immigration peeps find out it's a sham...)  Because the principals have married a) without declarations of love, and b) with sufficient evidence that they will never fall in love, it's then hard to c) reveal that they are in love for fear it's one-sided and makes the situation too awkward.

One last thing:  There's no sex in Betty Neels' marriage-of-convenience plots.  Of course that's consistent with the chastity expected in Harlequin Romances back then, but it's almost necessary in these books.  I don't believe that sex leads to love, but it does lead to intimacy.  If the reason neither admits loving the other is the risk of awkwardness from unrequited feelings, sexual intimacy might be a short-cut out of that dilemma.  The blurted "I love you," is a cliche, but it's also less risky.  You can deny it when you're upright and dressed again.  You can assume the other didn't hear it, and the other can play deaf. 

In a Neels marriage of convenience, the sense I have is that sex would be so personal and so intimate that it couldn't happen comfortably -- for either protagonist -- without the avowals of love.  I don't believe any of her heroines was frigid, but shy and more than a bit nervous.  (They, it goes without saying, were all virgins.  Frankly, many of the heroes might have been virgins, or have had just enough sexual experience to "tide them over" until they married for love.)

The kicker is that you need sex to have kids -- more Neels heroines agonize about the fact that their marriages of convenience won't result in kids than feel sexual deprivation.  They look sad when the housekeeper shows them the nursery and other child-appropriate rooms.  They are wistful when introduced to other couples' children.  There's no connection of procreation with sex; no Neels heroine ever ever ever dreamed of seducing her husband just to have a baby.  On the other hand, there's no exhalation in relief at the end of the book when she realizes "Yippee!  He loves me, so he's going to sleep with me, so I'll get preggers."  Being loved is enough.

The reason, I think, that Trixie's still called Trixie at the end of An Unlikely Romance is that she finally knows -- as a factual matter -- that Krijn loves her, but I suspect she needs a little time to absorb the reality of being loved.  Part of the HEA, thus, is that eventually she stops being Trixie (the name of the unlovable niece) and starts being Beatrice (the much-loved wife).

Friday, February 26, 2010

Smart or Honest? I'll Attempt to Be Both

Lynn Spencer over at AAR has a new post about love-hate relationships with regard to books by certain authors.  She's talking about Betty Neels' books, and she not only links to my new best friends, the Bettys who write The Uncrushable Jersey Dress, but also to Sadie's less favorable review here of Stormy Springtime's curmudgeon of a hero.  And for the scholarly approach, try Laura Vivanco's analysis of Discovering Daisy at Teach Me Tonight.

Honest:  You know how we may hide our romances from our non-romance-reading friends?  (Read Jessica's explanation of how she hid them from the housekeeper.)  Well, I hid my Betty Neels collection from my romance-reading friends.  I'd admit to liking them, but I didn't feel I could defend them.  They're not merely retro, they're regressive.  The heroines are girls, not women; they have jobs and work hard but the "reward" is to marry the rich Dutch (later English) hero and be wealthy and do good works, suggesting being a wife will be a fulfilling enough life.  The heroes aren't even in the Greek alphabet, as they barely communicate with the heroine while steadily guiding the relationship toward its inevitable ending,  Most of the secondary women characters are portrayed particularly badly: lazy, ineffectual mothers / greedy, selfish sisters / irascible, demanding elderly women / gold-digger, predatory "other women" / punitive, heartless employers or supervisors (but not fellow nurses, who are almost all lovely people) / even troublemaking teens.

And yet I love them.  Why?

Smart:  Betty Neels was born in 1910 (her biography is rather fun, btw), so she would have done her nurse's training back before it was even considered respectable for a woman to have a career.  Almost all the British women from that era that I knew worked until they married, after which they pursued their interests (sculpture, propagating irises, etc.) and supported their husbands' careers.  So Betty grew up with a very different cultural framework than we did or even our mothers did.  Add to that the sheer Britishness of her existence, with its not-so-subtle subtexts of class and privilege, and her books make more sense.  They're still wildly anachronistic, though.

Honest:  But in another way, they aren't.  I have a brother-in-law who could pass for a Neels hero in a dim light (and provided he didn't speak): tall, dependable, devoted to his wife and children.  Mind you, Mike's wife has a Ph.D. and a job outside the home, but if she didn't, she would look a lot like a Neels heroine -- pretty, loving heart, devoted to her family, etc.  They have two children, teenagers (just), who are well-behaved and pretty good at school, sport, and community activities.  Take away their cell phones, and they could pass for Neels' teenager characters.  And I don't think Mike's family is very odd or anachronistic.  What I see in them is goodness of character, a willingness to serve their communities, and a dedication to making their home a good place for all who enter.

Smart:  So if you take a Neels heroine, teach her some computer skills and throw a mobile phone in her handbag, would you get someone closer to a "modern" British female?  No, of course not, because we expect women in that situation to be independent, sexually experienced, socially connected, and self-determining.  Frankly, even in 1969 when Neels published her first book, her heroines were anachronistic and unrealistic.  During the 30 years during in which she wrote 134+ books, her heroines changed little while women everywhere else (fictional and real life) changed a lot.

Consider this, though -- She herself had an admirable life, even (I would argue) by feminist terms.  She trained as a nurse, served in WWII, married, dealt with her husband's long recovery from war wounds, continued her nursing career (in Holland, even!) while she raised their child, and then -- when she was 59 (a number that is notable in one vital way: it's older than me!) -- she started a 30+ year career as an author.  What's not to admire there?  Romance writers, as we know, are allowed to write what they want, including rape scenes -- so why not write regressive crap about mousy chaste heroines with out-of-date moral codes?  As Stephen Colbert would say, "The market has spoken," in that Neels' books were pretty successful for series romances, even in the waning years of her career when the chasm between her world (in which a Thomas Kinkade cottage wouldn't look odd) and reality was at its greatest.

Honest: I really don't care about feminism in this context.  In my dissolute youth, I read a lot (a real lot) of Barbara Cartland's 300+ faux historicals, and I saved precisely two: the one she ripped off from E.M. Hull's The Sheik, as it happens, and a very early one that was almost an interesting book (plus they had sex).  Thinking back on it, I would say Cartland's books lacked heart.  She wrote them because she could and because they sold.  I rate Betty Neels much higher than that, which is why I saved all of hers, even the ones I didn't like as much.  I am -- perhaps irrationally -- more of a completist with Betty Neels than any other author, and it has nothing to do with intellectual arguments pro or con.  (Bluntly, I don't think ideology is either necessary or sufficient to make a romance novel good.  We can love or hate a romance because of its ideology, but we can love or hate a romance despite an ideology we approve.)

It has to do with heart.  Almost all of her books are fairy tales of sorts: "The Little Match Girl" or something like that.  Downtrodden heroine refuses to give up, but also refuses to feel sorry for herself or to get angry.  She accepts (rather too vigorously) the assumption that she's plain and unexciting.  (As Betty may have felt about herself; see the picture at right.)  By her good works, he shall know her: the hero somehow recognizes the heroine as a) prettier than people realize, b) a loving soul, and sooner or later c) the one person he wants to be with.

Now -- what's wrong with that?

Smart:  Nothing, really.  It's just a shame that the heroine can't see her own worth before the hero can.  Why does she need his good opinion to believe in herself.

Honest:  Oh, now we're back to feminist dogma.  And sure -- I'll always lose that argument.  But when I read Betty Neels' biography, which includes some hardship financially and personally that she did work through, I wonder if she didn't write about 134 women (or 1 woman 134 times) that she could identify with, and then gave them what she considered a better, easier life than she had.  I have no doubt she loved her husband very much, just as I love my husband.  But as fantasies go, being loved by a guy who is more successful than you are, better looking than you, richer than you, and who can find his way perfectly after looking at a map just once (I told you they were fairy tales!), is not too hard to swallow.

Smart:  Unless it sticks in the craw.

Honest:  In which case, you don't read Betty Neels.  You read Anne Stuart's Black Ice instead.

Smart:  Touché.

Honest:  So here it is:  the real reason I love Betty Neels books as much now -- after an approximately successful career as a lawyer and two happy marriages -- as I did when I was in my teens, still covered with acne and wearing dowdy plaid outfits I made myself.

She makes me feel good.  It's all about the visceral, the inchoate happiness that comes from reading a romance.  It's indefensible, partly because there's no accounting for taste, and partly because I'm feeding the hungry heart of my inner dumpy unpopular teenage self when I read her books.  If their appeal had been intellectual, then I wouldn't like them now.  But they are comfort food books -- really well-prepared comfort food that you never outgrow.

Edited to add: Describing books as "comfort food" may seem a cliché, but here's evidence that my dog, Mimi, agrees all too literally:
She just did this today -- found it in a tote bag near my chair and went to town.  This is literally the first thing she's destroyed by chewing.  Good taste?  You be the judge.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Childhood Favorites (Second of Two Posts)

I wrote about Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess here.  Today it's Daddy-Long-Legs' turn.

A Little Princess was published in 1905; Daddy-Long-Legs was published in 1912.  But Sara Crewe and Judy Abbott are young women of the same period (I calculate Judy to be about three years older than Sara).  There are other similarities.  They are both orphans and charity cases until well along in their respective books.  (That Judy earns her way partly out of her charity-case status is perhaps just a factor of her advanced age.  There's no reason to suppose Sara wouldn't have figured out a way to earn some money by the time she was Judy's age.)  Their stories are both about character and education, and by the time they get their HEAs, they have earned that happiness.

There is one really huge difference, though, between Sara Crewe and Judy Abbott.  Judy smiles a lot more.  A lot.  Even though, truthfully, she might have been excused a few tears or some stoic grimness.  She did not have an easy time of it as a child.

When we first meet Judy, she's been summoned to the matron's office at the John Grier Home, the orphanage where Judy has lived her entire life.  She's to be sent to college through the financial generosity of one of the trustees.  She saw him leaving the Home as she hurried to matron's office, but all she caught was a glimpse of the shadow made when his car was being driven up to the porte cochere and its headlights lit his tall frame.  The resulting shadow is distorted by the angle of the light and her impression is of spindly arms and legs: a daddy-long-legs spider.

His conditions for her scholarship and allowance are very simple.  She's not to know who he is, she's to write to him monthly with reports of her education, and she's never to expect a reply.  With those rules in place, off she goes to a girl's college.  As Jean Webster (the daughter of a publisher and great-niece of Mark Twain) went to Vassar, I think we can safely assume that Judy's unnamed college was very much like Vassar.

The rest of the novel is epistolary, a wonderful word that means it's just her letters to Daddy-Long-Legs, as she calls her anonymous benefactor.  She assumes he is as old as the other trustees, only thinner.  (There's a bit of disbelief to be suspended here, as it seems unlikely she would never ever have seen this unusually slender trustee, but hey -- that's why we read fiction and not biographies or true crime books.)

Now, I love epistolary novels, perhaps because I would love to receive letters.  Think of all those letters Elizabeth Bennett writes in Pride & Prejudice -- who wouldn't have loved to get those on a semi-regular basis?  Alas, emails and tweets can't hold a candle to what Judy writes to DDL; she's funny and informative and very very happy to be at school.  True, her life at the John Grier Home was not nearly as horrible as what Sara Crewe endured as a drudge at Miss Minchin's, but Judy relays to DDL a story about the time she was caught stealing cookies:



That's just a chilling image:  a nine-year-old girl tied to a stake in the back yard.

Oh, did I forget to mention that this is a romance?  Spoiler alert -- if you haven't read Daddy-Long-Legs and you want to, stop reading now.  I'll discuss something benign while you're clicking away, but really, if you don't want to know who her beloved turns out to be, stop now.  (And if you literally want to read it now, it's happily out of copyright and can be read here.

When Judy gets to her college, she's given a single (a big deal even today, I would imagine; certainly it was a big deal when I was a freshman back in the Dark Ages 1970s).  (My first roommate took one look at my phenomenally unfashionable appearance and conspired with the RA to get me moved to a room with a seriously depressed girl.  Back then, we didn't know from depression; today she'd be escorted firmly to the campus health center within a couple days.  Anyway, seriously depressed girl dropped out and I got . . . the room to myself.  A double single.  And all because I was phenomenally unfashionable.)  Judy figures she got a single because the college doesn't want someone from an orphanage (whose parentage might be . . . anything) to be in too-close proximity with their "better" students.

She's in a suite, effectively, with Sallie McBride and Julia Pendleton.  Sallie is from a well-off family, but the Pendletons are filthy rich (my characterization, not Webster's, although she's no fan of Vanderbilt-level wealth in the book).  Toward the end of Judy's freshman year, Julia's uncle Jervis pays them a visit.  He's the black-sheep of the Pendleton family, the much-younger younger brother of Julia's father.  Julia and Sallie can't get away from class, so Judy shepherds him around the campus and writes about all this to DDL:






Okay, are we good now? Is everyone (except Judy, of course) on the same page?  She doesn't twig until the very end, of course.  And it's a lovely ending, although one might wish that the book would go back to the third-person narrative form of the first chapter just so we might be a uh, spider on the wall when Judy and her love reconcile.

But look here (as my grandmother, who was close to Judy in age, might have said) -- what's really great about this book is its fresh voice when it comes to the education of women.  Judy loves to learn, another thing in common with Sara Crewe, and her letters make even her Latin class sound fun.  Here's one of my favorite bits: 




In fact, Judy's voice is so unaffected and friendly (it's easy to see why a certain someone falls in love with her) that it lulls us into forgetting that -- as she points out -- she's not a citizen as a woman in the US.  She is pretty pithy about the subject of suffrage, as well.

Webster, despite a very middle-class upbringing, was herself a progressive thinker.  (Although I'm shocked to read in Wikipedia -- so it must be true, right? -- that Webster subscribed to the theory of eugenics just because everyone did back then.  Judy is herself equivocal on the subject, and certainly doesn't worry too much about her parentage, although she is enough of a classist to worry that a certain someone shouldn't marry a woman he doesn't know (she thinks!) was raised in an orphanage.

Sadly, Webster barely got her own happy ending.  She fell for a Princeton man who, rather like Jane Eyre's Mr. Rochester, had a mentally ill wife.  Only after he was able to get a divorce could he and Webster marry.  She got pregnant at a relatively advanced age of 38 or 39, and died shortly after giving birth.  Her daughter would have been my mother's age, which provides me with a certain perspective.

There are illustrations, done by Webster herself in the style of a young woman's letters; high art they are not.  I have for that reason not included any here.  But here is Vassar College -- presumably a bit of it old enough that it would have been there in 1896 when Webster was a student:

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Childhood Favorites (First of Two Posts)

Two books were particular favorites of mine when I was a child, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett and Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster.  They have a lot to say about females, education, class and character -- and they were published within 10 years of each other (one is set in the US, the other in the UK) a hundred years ago.

Despite its age, A Little Princess has a lot of elements that will sound familiar:  Mean Girls, a new face on the scene who gets undue attention and is resented and punished for that attention, then a fall from grace at which point the heroine shows her character, and is rewarded for her virtue by an incredible reversal of fortunes.  But while all those things are there -- the difficulties of negotiating the nastiness that girls can show other girls, for example -- that's not what makes me love this book.

Now, I'll just say this up front:  If you think the plot in A Little Princess is absurd, I won't be able to convince you otherwise.  I can well see how people might react that way.  I love it, but not everyone has to love what I love.  (No, really!)

Sara Crewe is the pampered only child of Captain Ralph Crewe.  As the book starts, he brings her from India to London when she turns seven so that she can be a "parlor-boarder" at Miss Minchin's Select Seminary for Girls, which was recommended to him by friends.  He buys her an absurd amount of clothes, and a special doll, Emily, who also gets an absurd amount of clothes.  When he leaves, she's bereft but determined to be brave like a proper soldier.

School is a bit of a mixed bag for Sara.  She loves books and studying, but she doesn't like being singled out by Miss Minchin as the "star pupil."  There's a wonderful scene when Miss Minchin assumes that Sara will resist learning French when, in fact, she's already fluent in the language.  Miss Minchin won't let Sara explain herself so, when the French master shows up, she speaks to him in French.  He's thrilled with her, and Miss Minchin is furious.

For four years, Sara is the rich student liked by some and despised by others.  Then, on her eleventh birthday, her father's solicitor arrives to say that Ralph Crewe has died . . . penniless.  (Diamond mines, good friend from Eton, lost everything, yadda yadda.)  All the clothes are gone, as is the French maid, the private parlor, and the rest of the trappings of wealth and privilege.

At this point, I need to explain about the title.  While she is still rich, Sara imagines that she is a princess.  It's pretty clear this is intended to convey both superiority of class but also character; that a princess -- a real princess -- would be gracious, calm and generous no matter what her personal situation.  The Mean Girls find out about this and mock her, but their barbs don't have the desired effect.  When all the money is gone, Sara is turned into an unpaid teacher's aide and errand-running drudge at Miss Minchin's, and she has to draw upon her imagination and her inner resources to keep her composure.  (Which makes her sound like a prig, but Burnett sticks in just enough age-appropriate emotional outbursts to keep Sara this side of insufferable.)

When I was a child, the loneliness in A Little Princess was its emotional core: the feeling of being forsaken and yet still determined to survive even as the people around you undercut your efforts.  (I can really relate to that.)  But re-reading it for this post, I was struck by the following passage, where Sara is alone with her doll, Emily, who never answers Sara's questions:
"As to answering, though," said Sara, trying to console herself, "I don't answer very often. I never answer when I can help it.  When people are insulting you, there is nothing so good for them as not to say a word -- just to look at them and think.  Miss Minchin turns pale with rage when I do it, Miss Amelia looks frightened, and so do the girls.  When you will not fly into a passion people know you are stronger than they are, because you are strong enough to hold in your rage, and they are not, and they say stupid things they wish they hadn't said afterward.  There's nothing so strong as rage, except what makes you hold it in -- that's stronger.  It's a good thing not to answer your enemies.  I scarcely ever do.  Perhaps Emily is more like me than I am like myself.  Perhaps she would rather not answer her friends, even.  She keeps it all in her heart."

But though she tried to satisfy herself with these arguments, she did not find it easy.  When, after a long, hard day, in which she had been sent here and there, sometimes on long errands through wind and cold and rain, she came in wet and hungry, and was sent out again because nobody chose to remember that she was only a child, and that her slim legs might be tired and her small body might be chilled; when she had been given only harsh words and cold, slighting looks for thanks; when the cook had been vulgar and insolent; when Miss Minchin had been in her worst mood, and when she had seen the girls sneering among themselves at her shabbiness -- then she was not always able to comfort her sore, proud, desolate heart with fancies when Emily merely sat upright in her old chair and stared.

I love both the determination to be good and the reality of what it costs her to accomplish it.  What really grabbed my attention was the very Zen notion that the only thing stronger than rage is the ability to hold it in.  There's a lot to be said for the judicious use of anger, and a lot to be said for the deliberate decision to refrain from anger -- particularly in response to someone else's outburst.

I won't keep you in suspense.  After some very Dickensian scenes of hunger and corresponding generosity by our young heroine, she is the beneficiary of some lovely gifts, and then the restoration of her fortune.  (Diamond mines pay off, Ralph's good friend finds her, etc., etc.)  But no amount of money is as good as having family again.  And at the very end, you get a glimpse of what Sara is likely to do with her wealth.  (No, tearing down Miss Minchin's Select Seminary is not on the list.)

When I was much younger (and desperately unhappy), I gobbled up the happy ending that comes only after all that despair.  Now that I've had my own happy ending(s), I find Sara's character, her efforts to be a better person than those around her, are elements I'd not noticed before.  Of course, it's an absurd image of childhood; a real life child in Sara's position would almost certainly have been unable to keep it together the way Sara does.  But there's a Sara inside of me: a lost child in need of rescuing.  I learned after many year that the role of rescuer often falls on the person needing to be rescued.  (Being loved helps a lot.)  I think Sara rescues herself emotionally; although I admit it's a good thing someone showed up with some food just in time.

Three additional points:  First, if you want to get this book for yourself, please look for an edition with Ethel Franklin Betts' illustrations.  (Her cover art work is shown above.)  I feel really strongly about this -- she so perfectly expresses the darkness of Edwardian London.  (Tasha Tudor also illustrated A Little Princess.  I will refrain from saying what I think of her illustrations.  And while I haven't made an exhaustive study of more recent illustrators, I find it hard to imagine anyone has improved on Betts' art work.)

Second, there are those who prefer The Secret Garden by Burnett.  (I suppose that someone might love both books equally, but it seems unlikely.  As I like to say: The world is divided into two groups -- those who think the world is divided into two groups and those who don't.)  I suspect The Secret Garden addresses very different emotional issues, ones that have nothing to do with my personal situation.  Thus I respect the preferences of others, and I don't suggest that either book is "better" than the other.

Finally, the edition I have has the same typography as the original, and it's an interesting lesson in the evolution of written English.  Contractions are used, but only as two words where the second is shrunk down with the use of an apostrophe.  Thus, I wouldn't is shown as I would n't.  The possessive use of the apostrophe is as we know it today: Miss Minchin's, Sara's -- and there's even I don't without the space -- but it's striking to realize that all those contractions we don't find in Jane Austen's books are here presented in the form of an evolutionary "missing link" -- written as they sound when spoken but not yet single words.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Just a Quickie Today -- It's Been a Busy Week!

Crossword Man and I are off to Brooklyn this afternoon for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.  I competed last year (it was a bit like taking the bar exam...) and I am pleased to announce I will not be competing this year.  But Crossword Man will be, so I'm going to support him.  Hey, a hotel room, the Olympics, my laptop -- I'll be just fine.

What a weird week it's been.  All About Romance has a blog post on Modern Romance that is deja vu all over again.  When I married for the first time in 1999, there had been a decade, it seemed, of dire news items on how rare it was for women over 40 to marry for the first time.  I've now done it twice.

But then so much about me isn't statistically relevant these days.  I have lived virtually every minute of my life in the narrow-end of the bell shaped curve; it's a wonder I don't have a permanent stoop (I'm 5'11", which is in the top 1% or so for white women my age, I'm obese and thus also in the top 1% on that scale).  So -- old, tall, fat and still unmarried at age 40: it was a bloody miracle I could get married at all.  For all those reasons, I didn't even bother leaving a comment at AAR -- I figure I'm just too odd to have anything useful to say.

I'm still not sure if my comments at Jessica's blog, Racy Romance Reviews, have helped or hindered the discussion on feminism.  I have gotten a lot out of it, and really appreciate the various points of view that have been expressed.  Jessica will forever go into my pantheon of people who taught me something absolutely essential to my understanding of the world, myself, and my place in the world.  And she did so, I think (I hesitate to suggest another person's internal motivation) because she realized that I wasn't there to argue but to learn.  It's generous of her, Laura Vivenco, Sunita, Liz, Ann Somerville, Diana, and Lynn Spencer to take the time to read my long anecdotes and comments, and respond thoughtfully and with their own perspective well-expressed and illuminating.

There, too, my oddness is a factor.  I'm odd because I come from an odd family (dominated by strong women who are all well-educated, well-employed, and accomplished; I give some examples here), because I had an odd childhood (the abuse I suffered is, sadly, not that odd, but the details of what was done to me, by whom, and what I did to survive it combine in a way that is, undoubtedly, unique).  So I look for oddness in the world.  I don't look for patterns and similarities because, by definition, all the people in the wide part of the bell-shaped curve are unlike me.

This week has taught me that I need to see the patterns of sexism, and an independent study of feminism will be valuable toward that goal.  I'm not the same person I was a week ago; it's a cliche, but change is good.

Last item:  I blogged a while ago about how I was writing romance fiction but didn't really want to talk about it because like all difficult and lengthy endeavors, having people ask how it's going isn't always fun.  I don't blog about my writing, and I don't tweet about it.  But a funny thing happened a while back that resulted in my being asked to send an agent my work.  I'm months away from where I thought I'd have to be to query anyone, so this was both a surprise and a huge opportunity.  And a bit of a risk.

The agency in question has passed on my work.  That's not entirely surprising, but it does leave me with those feelings of doubt and uncertainty, both large and small.  I know I'm being irrational even to question my decision to write romances, but that's a hard thought to expel from one's mind.  A more rational question is whether there are deficiencies in my writing, and if there are, are they always going to be seen as deficiencies?  In other words, did the agency reject my writing because it doesn't fit their preferences, or because it won't fit anyone's preferences?

Look, I know this isn't a sprint, it's a marathon.  I know I'm still in the early stages of this process.  I know I shouldn't take this personally.  And I know I need to continue to believe in the quality of my work, even as I accept and benefit from all constructive criticism.  I know all that and I'm doing all that.  But rejection is still rejection, and we're not properly plugged into the world if rejection doesn't sting a little.

At the end of the week, I've been educated, engaged, exposed to new ways of looking at the world, and I've endured the first tiny "ordeal by market," as my grandfather called it.  And I had a sad realization: A friend once told me that her mother had made lampshades out of all her rejection letters; what can I do with rejection emails?

(Crossword Man just said:  You can make e-lampshades.  Can we tell he's a software compiler?)

This is what the ACPT looked last year, when I did compete.  I'm the second from the left in the front row: white shirt, black cardigan, knitting.  Yeah, so that's not exactly like the bar exam, where knitting would not have been allowed, but look at that room.  That's 650 people all solving puzzles under test-like conditions:  just like the bar exam!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Cranky Reader and the "Boring" Book

I'll be honest and tell you that this post will not be the best thing I write today -- I put a lot more time and effort into my comment(s) over on Jessica's Racy Romance Reviews site.  Go read the "best of Promantica that isn't on Promantica" over there.  (My comments are at #63, 71, and 80; Jessica's are at #65, 77, and ... ?)  The subject is feminism and romance novels, although I've taken it into a rather autobiographical cul-de-sac: Why I'm Not a Feminist (and Is It Too Late To Learn?)  I'm getting schooled by the best, and I couldn't be happier.  Thank you, Jessica!

Here's what happened:  I had J.R. Ward's Dark Lover with me for a weekend trip to visit my cousin outside Boston.  It's a goodly sized book, so I assumed that it would last me all weekend, and I was wrong.  As I also needed to get some Valentine's Day cards, I figured a trip to a local Barnes & Noble would be a good idea.  Road trip!

What to pick, though?  I'm not a "front cover/back blurb" gal.  I tend to rely on reviews, recommendations, even tweets filled with "OMG.  Best book evah!" will serve.  (Which is crazy, if you think about it, but it's how I roll.)  What I didn't have with me, either on paper or stored in my head, was a list of books or authors I wanted to try out.  I did look for some specific names, but this particular B&N was not well-stocked with new authors.

In the end, I got two Mary Balogh reprints, and started the earlier of the two: The Gilded Web.  Here's the plot:  Alexandra gets kidnapped by friends of Dominic, Lord Eden, under circumstances of false identity (they think she's Dom's twin sister, Madeline).  The Madcap Twins have an older brother, Edmond, Earl of Amberley, who discovers the trussed-up Alexandra and releases her.  Everyone confesses everything but the ton finds out anyway, and Amberley proposes marriage to Alexandra and is, finally, accepted.  That's all done in the first 80 pages or so of a 450-page book.

Now, I rather assumed at this point that there would be a hasty marriage, and then the fur would fly.  But no.  The assembled cast of characters takes off to Amberley, a stunningly gorgeous estate on the south coast of England in Wiltshire.  And a bit like a low pressure system settling in over the Gulf of Maine (for those of you on the East Coast), it's at Amberley that the story parks itself.  And virtually nothing happens.

Nothing.

No more mistaken identity.  No more kidnappings.  Not even a slapped face accompanied by feminine outrage.

Which should have made this a boring book.  But it's not.  It's just a different sort of story.  It's the story of how each of the five principal characters (it's a trilogy: Amberley & Alex are couple #1, then Madeline will sort out her romance with Alex's brother, James, and finally Dominic -- the least mature of the group -- will grow up and love someone for longer than ten minutes) sorts through some interesting issues:  Amberley learns what it is to need someone; Alex learns what true freedom of choice is; Dominic learns that he can't wait for permission to follow his heart; Madeline starts to learn what love entails, and James -- well, no, he bugs out before he can start to learn anything.  We'll catch you up later, James.

I'm afraid I did not do this book justice, and I plan -- someday -- to re-read it more slowly and carefully.  It's not that it's a deeply profound book, or that it doesn't make missteps.  But it's a thoughtful book.  I wondered, as I neared the ending, whether Balogh worked out the shifts in each character's thinking in advance, or did she allow them to walk along the beach, up on the cliffs, though the woods, over the river (no grandmother's house though) and inside the portrait gallery until they'd worked it all out.  I think I will enjoy it more now that I know what happens and when -- it's a book to be sipped not guzzled.  (Reading it as though it was just like Dark Lover was, thus, a huge mistake.  Ward's books are like a rave compared to Balogh's high tea!)

None of these characters is stupid, precisely, but they do get themselves into real muddles by assuming they know what they're doing.  Hmm.  Suspiciously like real life.  Unfortunately, in real life people don't always make the right choice and do sometimes stumble about a lot before getting it together.  That's way the book is so slow and ponderous -- it takes time for people to learn.

This cranky reader apologizes to this not-so-boring book.  I promise I'll make it up to you, eventually.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The One Edie Asked For: Why I Loved Dark Lover

When I was young -- back in the 60s -- I used to play "WWII combat" with my brother and some neighborhood boys.  The boys got sticks for guns and I was always the nurse; we tended to stick to gender-specific roles.  After that, the point was to take strategic positions behind bushes, pretend to shoot each other, get "patched up" by the nurse and go back into battle.  What I mostly remember was a simple shoot-em-up with no real plot, very little character development and silly names.

Which is basically what Dark Lover is:  Nothing much happens, but the game is still fun to play.  And everyone has a silly name.

Wrath, Rhage, Tohrment, Vishous, Zsadist, Phury, Darius.  Uh, can you pick out the red shirt from this crowd?  The one who's not coming back from the trip down to the planet-of-the-week?  Which makes me wonder, why did J.R. Ward not name him Dhangeroush?  Okay, so not Dhangeroush.  Wilde is a playwright.  Violhent looks like a musical instrument.  Bhrutal?  I have it: Khruel.  (Still reminds me of oatmeal, but let's move on shall we?)

Okay, so we know Darius is going to kick it pretty early on, and sure enough he dies almost immediately.  He kinda sorta bequeaths his daughter to Wrath, the leader of their happy band of brothers.  I don't have all the subtleties of their vampire civilization down yet.  We have a monarchy of sorts based on both bloodlines and a version of divine right; we have an aristocracy of sorts, and of course there's gobs of human money -- I must say vampires seem to be uncommonly good at making and saving scads of money; I'm pretty sure I could live to be a thousand and I'd still be worrying about whether I had enough money to live on.

Darius's daughter is Beth, a newspaper reporter who doesn't actually report on anything because she works for a sexist pig and thus can be better used copyediting the poorly-written articles by the MALE reporters.  (See?  More gender-specific role play!)  But even though she's not allowed to write anything, she's really working those police connections and being sure to be first on the scene when crimes happen.  Crimes like the father-she-never-knew blowing up.  An over-the-top brutal cop (which is to say a guy who would be a hero if only he weren't human) is attracted to Beth, but then everyone's attracted to Beth.  Supposedly each of his colleagues on the police force (regardless of marital status? or are they all single?) would "give his left nut just to hold her hand."

Wrath is so angry and distractedly focused on the lessers (the baddies, whose origin stories are truthfully even less interesting than the vampires) that he has no interest in Darius's verbal requests with regard to Beth.  All that changes when Darius is killed -- Wrath is now really angry but miraculously able to multitask: get Darius's killer and stalk save Beth.  That Wrath (nearly 7 feet tall and dressed entirely in black and leather, including his XXL boxers -- no tighty-whities for this vamp) is scary enough that she is understandably terrified when he breaks into her apartment.  He wipes her memory (ahh, it occurs to me now that the ability to wipe memories could assist in the acquisition of obscene amounts of human wealth...) and has to come back to try again.  Hmmm . . . human female is terrified, so I know, let's use the "red smokes," cigarettes that are supposed to be relaxants but which have the mysterious effect of making Beth super super horny.  Which she's never been before.

Now, just to review the bidding:  Wrath is King of the Vamps (good guys), Darius was a princeps (some sort of nobleman), Beth is half human but half vamp and is about to undergo an excruciating transition into a vamp as well as inherit all of her vamp lord father's property.  Developing a relationship might be a tough act for Wrath & Beth, but Ward has that wrinkle easily ironed out.  There seems to be a suggestion of a magical romance connection that works like Velcro:  when two vampish people who are meant to be mated come together, you can just about hear the schhlurrrp as they connect and let no one tear them asunder.

Vamp Velcro is a very convenient romantic device.  No dating, no awkward revelation of one's short-comings, no discussions about "where is this relationship going?" . . .  And best thing about the Vamp Velcro effect is that it has instantaneous character-reforming effects, particularly on the guy.  Wrath before the Vamp Velcro: loner, contemptuous of female sensibilities, not even that horny.  Wrath after the Vamp Velcro: devoted partner, tender and considerate lover, and eager to be a dad. 

From that point on, it's a race to the finish line, which of course will be at a spot where the heroine is in danger (but not completely useless), the hero shows up in the nick of time, and -- well, I won't say any more just in case I am not the only person in Romlandia who hadn't previously read this book.

Now -- I loved it.  I read it lickety-split (many thanks to my husband for doing more than half the drive to Boston so that I could read in the car) and loved it.  The scene that clinched the deal for me was where each member of the Brotherhood falls to one knee and they slam their daggers in a perfect pattern around Wrath -- geddit: the Black Daggers for which the Brotherhood is named.  A wonderful image, even if we know that getting these guys to work in sync is going to take some time.  I'd say five more novels' worth of time.

Dark Lover was fun the way playing "WWII Combat" was fun when I was a child.  It's escapist with the happy certainty that nothing real is on the line.  Trust me, for all that Wrath is Alpha Male wrapped in Bad-Ass with a sprinkling of Dangerously Violent on top, we know that love will tame him, he won't actually kill anyone who doesn't deserve it (only the baddies do that), and all the rough sex is consensual.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

How Do You All Do It?

I'm talking about you -- yes, you.  Reading this blog in a snatch of time between making a healthy dinner for your family, preparing for work, polishing off another blog post (one with citations, perhaps -- or a proper book review which required you to finish the book  . . . and it's the third book review you've written this week), or revising another chapter of your debut romance novel.  And as soon as you've done any or all of those things, you're reading a chapter book aloud to your child(ren), cleaning the house (because NONE of you has dust bunnies, I just know it), painting the spare room . . .

Okay.  You're not painting the spare room.  I have a friend who painted the spare room this week, and when someone asked her on Facebook where she got all that energy, she admitted, "Chemical imbalance."

To the extent that I know anything about any of you, you all have busier lives than mine.  All of you.  You've got jobs outside the home, kids, hobbies (by which I mean hobbies you actually do, not hobbies that you merely have all the materials for -- oh, and these are hobbies that, of course, you do effortlessly, always completing each project promptly and happily), elaborate schedules, and so forth.

I am amazed any of you get anything done.  I have none of those excuses competing demands on my time, and I'm having trouble getting books read, let alone discussed on my blog, let alone writing my own book.  And the crazy thing is, I'm not playing solitaire games the way I used to, I'm not reading non-Romlandia blogs the way I used to, and I've barely had a chance to read what the Fugly Girls are saying about the dresses at the Golden Globes, let alone the Grammys.

So, hats off to you moms/professionals/bloggers/readers/commenters/authors/would-be authors/all-around impressive & accomplished people.  I'm trying hard to emulate you all.  And I'll get there -- I'll get organized and more efficient with my abundance of free time . . . I just don't know when.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Test Drive of My New Toy!

My ex-husband Henry (aka Brit Hub 1.0) gave me an early birthday present: OUP's Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary.  It even comes with a poster!  (A poster I have no wall space for, but for word geeks like us, it's still cool to get a poster.)

Let's take it for a test drive, okay?  I'm going to link back to a post I did ages ago on some words and phrases in a historical novel that struck me as anachronistic.  If I understand how to use my new toy, I should be able to look up words that would have been period-appropriate for the Regency Era.  Here's the post I wrote, and here are the words I looked up:

  1. Dog show (clearly meaning a confirmation show for dogs) 
  2. Bivouac 
  3. Bleeding heart (in the sense of being soft hearted or overly generous toward others) 
  4. Lame duck (in the non-political sense of someone down on his luck) 
  5. Driveway

This is actually a tough lot, but let's see if the HTOED is up to the job.

1.  Dog show

Immediately I see that this is a three-step process.  On the poster, I see that Animals are categorized under Life and have the coding 01.02.06  (If you get one of these, I predict you will find yourself muttering "oh one oh two oh six oh eight oh three oh four oh one" -- you'll see why in a moment -- and so I would recommend that you either warn your loved ones that you will be doing this or do it in an empty room.  It just sounds weird.  Like secret incantations, or the ramblings of a poor unfortunate let out on a day pass from the institution...)

The entire second volume is the index.  I looked up "dog" and found no reference to "show."  Dead end.  I then looked up "show" and found more than a solid column of these multiple-number references just for the word "show" alone.  Then it hit me.  Now I see why the poster is so important.  The reference numbers are in order, and sure enough there's one in the 01.02.06 section!  Specifically, 01.02.06.08.03.04.01.  (See, the muttering makes sense now.)

I go there and find that 01.02.06.08 is (n.) Domestic animal and has a long column of stuff.  I look for 03.04.01 and find
Domestic animal . . . display show 1886 (dial.); 1886 (dial.)

which I take to mean that the word "show" in the sense of the display of a domestic animal (such as a dog) dates back to 1886, when it was used in two dialects (but they don't say which).  (However, it could mean that referring to a specific animal as a "show dog" might date back to 1886.  There is some ambiguity here.)

My original post quoted Wikipedia as having the first confirmation dog show in 1859 -- which rather prompts the question: If the first one was held in 1859, what was it called if not a "dog show?"  And then I wonder if maybe I got this all wrong and should have parsed the question differently.  But as this strongly suggests that dog shows as we understand them did not exist, I suspect the hero would do better simply to say something mean about the dog's appearance.

2.  Bivouac

All of 03.03 is Armed Hostility, so I'm going to guess that I'll find "bivouac" under 03.03.10 Military life/service.  But I needn't have worried; there are five (!) entries for "bivouac" -- three are nouns and two are the verb form.  What I'm looking for is a noun meaning temporary living site occasioned by war.

The first noun is this one (03.02.02.02.01):
Camping/encamping . . . without a tent bivouac 1853-1872 (transf.)

But I don't think our hero was talking about encampments without tents, so moving on...

Next entry is 03.03.06.01/06:
Action/duty of sentry/picket . . . night watch bivouac 1706-1772

Again, not the meaning in our case.  One more noun to check:

03.03.09.02.01/06.01.04:
Quartering . . . temporary/without tents bivouac 1811-

Bingo!   That's our winner.  But I'm curious about this "without tents" business -- and so maybe I'd not use the word bivouac if I was talking about an encampment that did have tents.  (Encampment is always safe:  03.03.08.02.01/06:  it dates back to 1686 - .)

And did anyone else notice that my initial guess was wrong?  I found the desired meaning of "bivouac" under 03.03.09 Military administration and organization.  Oh well.

3.  Bleeding heart

A rather more abstract concept.  It could be under 03.01.05 Social attitudes.  Let's go see...

Nope.  This one was easy (once I stopped looking under "heart"): 02.02.25/09.04.02
Pity/compassion . . . Excessively sympathetic person bleeding heart 1958- (colloq.)

Just as the OED said the first time.

But here's where the HTOED can be useful.  Do we have anything we can use from before the early 19th century?  Well, "tender-heartedness" dates back to 1607; it doesn't quite have the same pejorative meaning, but with some characterization added, I think a skillful author could get there.

4.  Lame Duck

I have now learned to look the phrase up first, just in case it's already there.  And this one is, in fact there are five instances of "lame duck" as a noun.  Let's see if the poster can help me narrow down the one I want.  Looks like the first one is what I want: 01.05.05.22.02/11.01
Inability . . . lacking resource/initiative stick-in-the-mud 1733 - ; lame duck 1889

But I'll double check the others (I know I don't want the political sense of lame duck).  Lame duck also means one who is insolvent 1731; a company that is not profitable 1922; a damaged boat or vessel 1876; and finally, one who cannot be re-elected in the US 1863-.

So let's say you want to convey the pitiful objects of charity with a historically accurate word.  I'll try "charity" in the index.  How about "charity child" in use from 1714-1861?  I'd want to cross-check with the OED to see what all it means, but the beauty of it is that the modern-day reader would understand what this archaic term meant in context.  (And so what if it was used only when specifically referring to a child?  The OED might not have known about a colloquial use of the term in speech when referring to the sort of people a tender-hearted woman might want to help.  Could have happened...right?)

5.  Driveway

03.09.02.01.02.04/36.04.01
Road . . . leading to a house avenue 1654 - ; sweep 1797- ; drive 1816- ; wheel-sweep 1833 ; carriage-drive 1863 ; driveway 1870- (chiefly N. Amer.)

Pay-dirt.  This is why I wanted this book.  Because if the only word I can think of is "driveway," I look it up and I'm led directly to five other words, and their dates of usage.

Thank you, Henry!

P.S.  If anyone wants more specific information about this book, let me know in the comments or on Twitter.  Obviously most authors of historical fiction would use it more like a regular thesaurus: look up a general word and see if you can find the best alternative.  I didn't do that simply because I'm not writing a historical novel.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Reader - Author Barrier

[I'm modeling the title of this post on the "blood-brain barrier"  which keeps nasties like bacteria from getting into our spinal fluid, while allowing in all the happy stuff like oxygen.  If good fences make good neighbors, then a properly constructed barrier allows only healthy things to pass through.]

(Isn't this pretty?  For more information on this photo, go here.)


This post is actually a series of vignettes, but each one illustrates the power of the reader - author interface: why what we feel about books influences how we feel about the author, and vice versa.

1.  I got to meet Deidre Knight a couple weeks ago.  She was in a local Borders bookstore signing copies of her latest book, Butterfly Tattoo.  After the madding crowds had receded, we wandered over to the Romance section (because the book signing was in the Business section -- why do you ask, does that strike you as odd?) and chatted about books.  Butterfly Tattoo notwithstanding, Deidre writes paranormal romances, so when she saw the J.R. Ward Black Dagger Brotherhood books, she got very excited.  "Oh, have you read these?" she asked me.  I had to admit I had not.  ("I started reading one at a friend's house," was my actual lame answer.)  She grabbed Dark Lover and shoved it into my hands.  I guessed I was buying that book!

Deidre's praise for the Black Dagger Brotherhood novels was ardent, and familiar.  "They are like crack."  This isn't a new observation; check out the comment thread in this post on Monkey Bear Reviews.  I think we retain a special affection for those books we just can't get enough of.  (I'm pretty sure Deidre's insistence I buy a "crack" book isn't "pushing" in the strictly legal sense.)

It was what she said next that really caught my attention.  "The characters are so real, I feel I know everything about them."  Then she laughed, "Well, real other than the names, of course."  I laughed too.  Even I knew about the names; Rhage, Zsadist, heh heh.

I don't have a problem with the concept that an author has written characters so vibrant that they seem real, even though they are vampires and other wee ghoulie beasties.  So I started to think which books have characters so real I could walk up to them and start a conversation.

Interestingly, not many books fit that bill for me.  I have lots of favorite books and can visualize lots of characters, but there's still that whiff of fiction about them that keeps them from coming to life in my head.  Then it hit me:  Julia Spencer-Fleming's Millers Kill mysteries.  I want to drive to Hudson Falls, NY (the inspiration for the fictional Millers Kill) and go looking for Clare and Russ.  Or just their homes.  Anything.

2.  Sadly, I'll not be going back to Millers Kill for a while (barring re-reading the entire series for a fourth time...) because the publication date for One Was A Soldier, the seventh in the Millers Kill series, has been pushed back twice now.  It was supposed to be out last October, and then this April.  Currently, Amazon and other sites have the publication date as February 1, 2012.

Two years?  Seriously?  Can I last that long?

Then I think -- Why?  What's up with Julia Spencer-Fleming that the book's delayed?  I really hope it's not bad news.  I know next-to-nothing about this woman, but when I think of what might cause a second delay in the publication of a book, I think of tragedies in her family, illness, writer's block, etc.  Bad stuff.  Stuff I wouldn't wish on anyone.

It's nothing to do with me, of course.  It's none of my business.  I love the books, but loving the books doesn't give me a claim on Ms. Spencer-Fleming's time or talent.  I know she doesn't owe me (or any of her legion of fans) another book or another anything.  If six books are all we get, then they're all we get.  She has -- all authors have -- a life outside of their work, even if the work is all we get on our side of the author-reader barrier.

Well, almost all.  Check out her comment here at Smart Bitches (you'll want to read the post and maybe click on the YouTube clip to get the joke) -- now that's priceless.  So now I know two things about Julia Spencer-Fleming: she writes sublimely, and she's got a great sense of humor.  As for everything else in her life, well it's none of my business but I hope she's okay.

3.  I have a friend who would seriously advocate for an adjustment of the common law of torts to permit lawsuits against authors who mess with recurring characters.  What she's talking about, I believe, is the rage she feels when she picks up the latest in a beloved series and discovers that -- just because he can? -- the author has taken well-established characters and changed them around.  If they were a couple already, now they've split up.  If they were gay, maybe they're now straight.  Something like that.  In my case, it would be like (finally!) reading One Was A Soldier and discovering that Russ went off and married someone else while Clare was "out of town" (no spoilers here) for an extended period.

As maybe not everyone has read Julia Spencer-Fleming's Millers Kill mysteries (and we can't hold up this blog post while you buy and read them), let's use Harry Potter.  Not everyone liked the epilogue at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but really, there was nothing there too extreme or unexpected.  But what if she'd written something to suggest that Hermione had gone over to the Dark Arts and Harry had had to hunt her down for the Ministry of Magic, capture her and see her incarcerated in Azkaban -- oh, you get the idea.  Absurd, of course -- but infuriating even to imagine.

Do authors owe us consistency with beloved characters?  Maybe not to the point of litigation, but I'd say yes in very broad terms.  Julia Spencer-Fleming doesn't owe me another Millers Kill book, but if she publishes one, there are some common-sense limits to what she may do with Clare and Russ.  Mind you, I'd say those limits are very generous: as long as the author can convince us that the changes are possible, then I suspect my friend's lawsuit is thrown out for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted."  But if an author has mucked about with characters in implausible ways, or gratuitously, then I think the lawsuit survives preliminary objections, at least.

4.  I have another, different, friend who said something to me a while back that illustrates another aspect of the reader-author barrier.  My friend -- I'll call her Dianne -- knows a lot of romance authors by virtue of having been a long-time associate member of RWA.  I was chatting with Dianne about a Famous Author whose books are very popular.  "Oh, I never read her stuff," Dianne said.  "I'm sure it's really good, but she's such a drama queen in person that I just don't want to."

(No, I will not tell you which Famous Author Dianne was talking about.  Just know that you've read her books, and almost certainly liked them.)

My point isn't a tacky blind gossip item about Famous Author -- after all, I have no idea if Dianne's opinion of FA is reasonable -- but rather it's this notion that how we feel about an author as a person affects how we feel about her books.  Dianne won't read FA's books because her impression of FA colors the reading experience.

You'll see immediately that this is perhaps a failure of the reader-author barrier: bad stuff has crossed over from author to reader and contaminated the reading experience.  (I hasten to note that one person's "drama queen" is another person's passionately concerned activist.  I'm sure FA would object to the characterization, or be upset by it.  We are none of us completely happy with how others claim to see us.)

So what's better:  some contact between the author and the reader?  No contact?  Or carefully staged contact -- book signings, etc. -- that reduces the chance that the reader thinks she sees an author's alleged feet of clay?  Should authors "be themselves" or should they be guarded and self-censoring?

It's a relevant question in these days of social networking sites.  A pseudonym can help an author maintain some anonymity; two pseudonyms (one for the author's thoughts and comments on the Internet and another for her books) might work even better.  But that's inherently dishonest, a deception that if revealed could alienate fans even more.  Plus, at some point most authors (J.D. Salinger having been a notable exception) show up in person and mingle with their fans.  Do authors owe us their true selves or -- quite to the contrary -- do they owe us a Bowdlerized version of themselves, one with all the ill-humor stripped away, so that we can enjoy their books without concerning ourselves with their personality quirks?

I don't have an answer.  What do you think?  If an author does have a presence online, at book signings, and/or at conventions, what's her best move with respect to her interactions with readers?  Be herself, be her best self, or be a carefully constructed version of herself?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Something Jessica Wrote . . .

. . . got me thinking, and you know what that means:  Another blog post.

Let's start with giving credit where credit is due.  Jessica at Racy Romance Reviews wrote a review recently about Victoria Dahl's latest book, Lead Me On.  I have not yet read Lead Me On, but I have met the heroine in an earlier Dahl book, Start Me Up.  She's Jane Morgan, a seemingly composed administrative assistant in the SMU hero's architecture firm.  I gather we learn a lot more about Jane's backstory in LMO, including her childhood in a trailer park.  A large part of the character arc for Jane is getting past her own feelings about, and reactions to, her childhood.  (Again, my apologies if I've misstated anything about LMO, I'm truly inferring this from Jessica's review, as well as reviews I've read elsewhere.)

I'm going to try to do justice to the nuanced perspective Jessica -- a professional philosopher (not to be confused with an "armchair philosopher" although I suspect Jessica wouldn't turn down an "endowed chair" if offered...) -- brought to this book.  She reflects in her review on the role of socio-economic assumptions and prejudices in romance novels, noting that most romances are written with a middle-class perspective on the poor and the wealthy.  She says,
In the US, the phrase “trailer trash” [is supposed to] say so much more about a person than how much money they have: it’s a catch all for a lot of classist moralistic judgments about the supposed sexuality or other morally significant, and blameworthy, practices of the poor (such as, paradoxically, wastefulness with money — especially the state’s money, theft, vice, etc.).
Well, this got me thinking, and I commented at length at Racy Romance Reviews, but I want to spend a bit more time with this topic.

If you want the short form, it might go like this:  Poor people are individuals and behave as differently from each other as they do from those in other socio-economic strata.  If there's a common feature that I've observed, it's that the poor more often believe they have few or no options.  Without options, they don't feel they have choices, and without the feeling that they have choices, they can't or don't feel empowered in their own lives.  And without the feeling of empowerment, there is less personal responsibility and no pride in their own accomplishments.  But all of these things happen in middle-class and wealthy families as well, just less frequently.  Money doesn't solve problems, but it can fund some options and opportunities, and so more middle-class people can perhaps afford to solve their own problems sooner.  And anyone, from any walk of life, can grow up to feel irrationally trapped by a "destiny" shaped by a powerless childhood.

But that's just words, and I like examples.  So, with all identifying information removed, and certainly all privileged conversation kept privileged, I would like to tell you about three women I've encountered in my brief career as a court-appointed lawyer in a poor rural county.

I'll call the first one Agnes.  She was in her 40s and had three children; one lived with his father in another state.  Agnes struck me from the first as strong-willed and intelligent, but also very brittle and scared underneath her ferocity.  I wasn't her favorite person from the get-go and it took a lot of work to get her to trust me even a tiny bit.  She didn't drink or do drugs, and she had never been promiscuous.  She was just really angry.  In the end, I learned she was in an abusive relationship with the father of her youngest child, a girl.  He had been charged with molesting his older daughter (by another woman) but was out on bail.  His family had sufficient money to pay for his lawyer; they believed his protestations of innocence.

So why didn't Agnes kick the son of a bitch to the curb?  Because she was living in his house, had lost her job, was depressed, and felt she had nowhere to go.  When Agnes got depressed, the local child welfare agency took Agnes's daughter away and placed her in her paternal grandparents' house despite the fact the agency believed the father to be capable of molesting young girls.  (They accepted the grandparents' insistence that their son was only in the house under supervision, but what's that insistence worth when the grandparents didn't believe him guilty?)  (But just to be clear, I never saw or heard any evidence to suggest Agnes's daughter was ever molested.)

It's had a happy(ish) ending:  Agnes got her daughter back, the father pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and went to jail, and Agnes moved in with a friend (but not previously her lover) with teenagers of his own and a more stable housing situation.  Don't think I had anything to do with this; my principal role was to stop Agnes from yelling at various officials in open court.

I liked Agnes, and I wished she'd gotten more education; she's smart.  But of course, I was judging her by my middle-class assumptions about what smart women can and should be doing.  That just wasn't her perspective.  She felt powerless when she was financially dependent and emotional abused by her partner.  The transition to a more autonomous life was not easy.  We can say, "Just move out," but it's rarely that easy, and even when it is, I suspect it doesn't feel that easy.

So -- back to romance fiction.  Imagine Agnes's daughter grown up as a heroine.  Maybe -- and I'm talking fiction here -- that heroine would have some anxiety about certain men.  Maybe she'd only date beta guys (or even gamma guys!) as a reaction to the relationship she saw acted out between her father and her mother.  Maybe she'd have trouble seeing the distinction between a powerful but respectful man and a controlling, manipulative man.  Maybe that would be a real barrier to her romance with the hero.  Maybe she'd have to see that she wasn't destined to relive her mother's situation (smart and strong, but primarily trapped by her own belief that there's no place to escape to) but could love and trust someone who really was different from her dad.

And the "trailer trash" portion of this story?  Well the grandparents were comfortably well-off, the son had had a decent blue-collar job until his arrest, and when I met them, he and Agnes lived in a nice but run-down frame house in town.  Agnes and her new partner live in a trailer, but sources tell me that it's a loving home with good values.  So it's in the trailer that our heroine may just be learning new lessons about who her mother is, and thus who she may herself become.


My second example is Mirella.  I met Mirella just minutes before a court hearing about whether her daughter should be removed by the child welfare agency because of her parents' drinking.  Who ratted my client out?  Her dad, a self-confessed active alcoholic, who drank throughout my client's childhood.  You know, sometimes the obvious explanation is really obvious: Mirella's partner (and the father of the toddler the agency wanted in foster care) was a carbon copy of Mirella's dad with one important difference: Partner loved her very much and was emotionally more available to Mirella than her Dad had ever been.  But Partner was an active alcoholic just like Dad; they even looked a lot alike.

Mirella had a very passive demeanor, soft-spoken and a bit downtrodden.  She and Partner lived in a trailer (there are a lot of them where I live) that was scrupulously clean.  (One of my efforts was to get Mirella a job cleaning houses; she'd have been great.)  Although we prevailed in that first court hearing, a few months later she had a baby boy and the court ruled both infant son and toddler daughter should be in foster care.  I think it was the wrong decision, but there was clearly no point appealing while Mirella and her partner were drinking.  Mirella was not, I believed, an alcoholic but was enmeshed, co-dependent and enabling.  Which is addiction-babble for: she was willing to drink with the Partner and wasn't willing to leave the Partner or kick him to the curb if he drank.

One way to look at this case (which is still going on, although I'm not Mirella's lawyer anymore) is that Mirella will lose her children because of the Recession.  Last fall, she and Partner were sober for a good bit of time, and he was willing to go into inpatient rehab.  If he had, she'd have stayed sober herself.  But state budget cuts took away the disability coverage he would have needed, and he was told no inpatient slot was available, and started drinking again, which meant my client started drinking again.  Another way to look at this case is that Mirella never woke up and thought, "I have to leave him even though I love him and need him.  I'll never get my kids back if I don't."

I doubt this case will have a happy ending.  Mirella seemed to think she was in a closed box, and no matter how close I (or anyone) set the bread crumbs leading out of the maze, and no matter how great the risk to her if she didn't try, she just couldn't see the exit.  Or she saw it and didn't want to go.  (And she was an awesome mother.  No, really.  Even the child welfare people admitted, under oath, that the children were clean, happy, well-fed, and not neglected, abused or exploited.  No, this case wasn't "Let's take the kids because they ARE being mistreated," this was "Let's take the kids because they might end up being mistreated."  I was never convinced the law allowed them to do that, but again, it wasn't likely to be overturned on appeal.)

If a heroine had this backstory,  she'd need a backbone transplant stat!  In fact, wouldn't a fictional version of Mirella seem disqualified as a potential heroine?  Because, although it's super easy to see why she's making the bad choices she is or failing to make the good choices she should, we still think she should be stronger.  She should see that she's going to lose her kids if she doesn't wake up and smell the toast -- as though that can be accomplished by sheer will.  Me?  I'd disqualify such a heroine on the grounds that, at this point, a major epiphany and course change would seem implausible.  In real life, I continue to hope, because I really like Mirella-the-mom and wish Mirella-the-unloved-teenager would get out of Mirella-the-mom's way.

But this is another example of an adult recreating her childhood experience but insisting on one key difference: she picked a guy who really loved her where her dad had not.  Dad valued Mirella as a caretaker, though, so she's a great caretaker today.  She just can't give up Partner's love even though it comes with an addiction so severe they will lose their kids.  Is she weak? or is she too scarred?

Final case: Susannah.  Not a client of mine, but a woman in a case where I was representing a different party.  Susannah has a made-for-TV-movie backstory.  When she was a child, some babysitter molested her and when she told her mother about the abuse, her mother didn't believe her as the babysitter was a family friend and close to mom.  Very bad, and we have a lot of sympathy for Susannah the child.  As an adult, Susannah is seriously narcissistic -- and I mean that in the criminally self-absorbed sense, not the joking, "Enough about me, what do you think of my dress?" sense.

Susannah married her high school sweetheart and they had three boys.  When the last baby was very little, someone -- no one ever copped to this -- hurt him.  (Here's what I learned: injuries to infants are very subtle; X-rays are necessary even to show fractures.)  All three boys went into foster care, where they stayed for years (literally) before I had anything to do with the case.  When I got involved, the child welfare agency was trying to terminate Susannah & Father's parental rights so the three boys could be adopted.

I'll skip to the result: youngest boy has been adopted by very loving foster family who had cared for him since his infancy; he'll be five this year, I think.  The two older boys have been placed with Susannah's parents (who are younger than I am -- maybe just about 50).  But Susannah is still a problem.  She feels entitled to her parents' attention, and even competes with her own sons to get it.

Susannah's parents are solidly middle-class.  They both work decent jobs at a local health care facility.  They own their own home.  Susannah is employed, although her husband (they're on-again, off-again) is less consistently employed.  No suggestion of drug use or alcohol dependency.  Susannah is a shopaholic, but then a lot of people are.

But if you had been in the courtroom for the testimony I heard, you wouldn't have let Susannah (or her husband) within a country mile of these kids.  For whatever reason, Susannah lacks self-awareness of her actions and their effect on her children.  She just felt entitled to be the center of attention and was willing to do anything, make any scene necessary, to get that attention.

I feel pretty strongly about this woman that she needs to be slapped across the face with the reality fish.  Sure what happened to her was horrible.  Her family seems to have been pretty dysfunctional throughout her childhood.  But that excuses none of what her anger and neediness has done to her sons.  She had a duty to get her head out of her butt when she had kids.  Her older sons are going to be picking up the tab for her arrogance and stubbornness for years to come.

And if one of the older boys grew up to be a romance hero, he'd have some heavy lifting to do before he could be trusted to love the heroine appropriately.  He's not seen a lot of examples of healthy romantic relationships (his foster parents were very good, but even three years of good foster care after five living with Susannah's rage isn't enough to turn the tide), so he'd have to figure that out and learn that stuff some other way.

So: three women.  One who had a hard time seeing her way out of an abusive relationship but made it; one who hasn't yet seen a way out of her dysfunctional relationship, despite the very real danger she'll lose her children; and one who simply doesn't care that she's a bad mother.  Funny thing is, I saw a lot I admired in both of my "trailer trash" clients, but the middle class mom?  Not so much.

Just to make it clear, I had other clients I didn't admire much, and some I liked but couldn't help.  My dream client was one who was exemplary in making the right choices and has turned her entire life around.  In her case, her parental rights were terminated even after three courts, five briefs, and a state Supreme Court case perfectly in her favor because -- I believe -- opposing counsel had more political clout in this state than I did.  That was my last case; I resigned after that.  I was willing to represent powerless women, but when the judiciary treats me as powerless simply because I no longer work for the number two firm in Philadelphia, I'm not willing to be a lawyer anymore.  It was my choice to exercise my option to decide for myself how I will and won't be treated.  But keep in mind I could, literally, afford that choice, and in that regard I know I'm very lucky.