Wednesday 5 October 2011

Heyeroines in need of a slap

27. Léonie de Saint-Vire (These Old Shades)

The Long Eighteenth Century, that gilded period during which the world as we know it was transformed irrevocably. Wordsworth wrote, of a day in 1789:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!--Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
And some few decades earlier, when our tale unfolds, Mademoiselle Léonie de Saint-Vire was indeed young, and thus well-placed to bask in the changing of the order of the Universe.

The very year in which she came to Paris, Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre uncovered the ruins of Pompeii, and our ideas of Classical Rome were never the same again. And how did this momentous discovery affect young Léonie? She attempts to murder her sister-in-law "with the big carving-knife."

Seven years later the great Scottish physician and scientist, Joseph Black, discovers both carbon dioxide and magnesium, while Leonhard Euler publishes his magisterial Institutiones calculi differentialis, placing Leibniz and Newton's work on calculus onto a sound footing for the first time. Léonie's reaction? She runs away from home and says "bah". Frequently.

Of course a tavern in the Rue Sainte-Marie is hardly the best place from which to observe the world, but from the day she enters the Duke of Avon's household she has access to a fine library and the newspapers. Surely now she will take advantage of those times in which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways of custom, law, and statute, are taking at once the attraction of a country in romance? Within a week of her arrival at that fine hôtel in the Rue Saint-Honoré, Lisbon is destroyed in an earthquake that kills 60,000 to 90,000 people. Yet Léonie pays no real heed, pausing merely to threaten her fellow servants with a dagger. The loss of the second Eddystone Lighthouse, an event that set all England a-buzz also passes without comment from Léonie, other than that the King looks in real life as he does on his coinage.

Perhaps the Duke's decision to transfer Mademoiselle de Saint-Vire to Avon Court was triggered as much by his growing realisation that she was failing to observe what was going on around her as it was by any consideration of babies swapped at birth or girls dressing as boys or longstanding enmities between noble families. Alas, despite her presence in London for the signing of the Treaty of Westminster, Léonie prefers to opine dismissively on the Duke's family and to say "bah" some more.

And then, when the French invade Minorca, triggering the Seven Years War, the Black Hole of Calcutta and the Last of the Mohicans, Léonie returns to Paris for her triumph. Ill-timed to say the least.

Is a slap sufficient when dealing with what starts to look like willful High Treason?

Sunday 2 October 2011

Heyeroines in need of a slap

26. Harriet Presteigne (The Foundling)

Poor Harry. It is a poor enough show for a Heyeroine that she does not appear until Chapter Four of her novel, but for Lady Harriet Presteigne the indignity is heightened by the detailed anatomising of her character by Lord Lionel some two chapters earlier. Any hope she may have cherished that she might bring an air of mystery into The Foundling is put to flight by our knowledge that she is a Very Well Brought-Up Girl, albeit one with a Want Of Spirits in her. But above all else she stands condemned by his lordship as Amiable. Is it any wonder that, after her brief appearance in Chapter Four, she disappears off to Bath, playing no further part in our story until Chapter Twenty, by when she has been additionally characterised in absentia as a Squab Little Figure Of A Girl, and indeed Nothing Out Of The Ordinary, by the delightful Lady Boscastle?

None of this would be a problem if Lady Harriet could lay claim, like Miss Lanyon, Miss Stanton-Lacy, Miss Grantham or dear, sweet Miss Wantage, to being the title character of her tale. But, while Harriet is lying low with the Dowager Countess of Ampleforth, this role is snatched by the bewitching Belinda. Indeed it would not surprise me to learn that at least one writer of my acquaintance had put forward the view that Belinda should be seen as the true Heyeroine here. We have, of course, trodden this ground before with both Miss Wychwood and Miss Theale, in competition with Miss Carleton and Miss Summercourt respectively. Needless to say, Wenlock’s position remains the definitive one. Lady Harriet is our Heyeroine. But how can a Heyeroine, indeed a Heyeroine who has, we are told (albeit told by a man whose only positive virtue is the possession of whiskers during the Regency), a Superior Understanding, For A Female, have made such a poor fist of the role she was written to fulfil?

The answer, I suggest, can be summed up in a word: cant. The briefest perusal of The Foundling will demonstrate that the key to success in its pages is not breeding, still less money, but a mastery of low speech. And when it comes to speaking cant, it appears that Lady Harriet simply can’t.

The Duke of Sale’s cousins merely talk in cant, Matthew accusing his brother of Bamming and his father of Nabbling Thirsk with Gideon merely referring to Matthew as a Rasher-Of-Wind. His servants meanwhile go as far as thinking in cant, A-Worriting, for instance, that the Duke is being treated to enough Cross-And-Jostle Work to drive him to Bedlam. It is fair to say that these characters do well enough for themselves by the end of the book.

But the real successes of the story are those whose mastery of cant is complete. Tom Mamble turns up in Chapter Nine without a Meg, but with a mouth full of Ruff Peck and by Chapter Twenty-Six is out shooting across Cheyney bagging every stray woodcock, pheasant, partridge, badger or Cotswold Lion he can point a Purdey at. This achievement would scarcely be conceivable had not Tom had a command of cant that would make a Kettering Ironmaster blush.

Beyond even Tom’s grasp of the tongue is Samuel Mimms, or as he prefers to be called, Swithin Liversedge. Oh, he can negotiate a pretty turn of phrase when it is needful, but when it comes to managing a Rare Bleached Mort, with or without any sense in her Cock-Loft, or drinking a Flash-Cull into a fit state for Plucking, you won’t find another Dimber Damber. And in The Foundling, that’s what gets results, starting with the means to establish a gaming hell in Strasbourg.

Against such odds what chance does a girl stand, when her family motto appears to be “Whoso keepeth his mouth and his tongue, keepeth his heart from troubles”? Had she but turned her Daddles to the Prinking Lay, and not just played the Tender Parnell, she might have been Thick with Sale and his Smirks right from the Ale-Post to the Yoke.

In need of a slap? More like a Wisty Castor.

Sunday 18 September 2011

It's only three weeks until the Romantic Novelists' Association's Regency Celebration. This is one of the few occasions on which I can wear my own Regency costume. Actually, it isn't really a Regency costume. The bottle green jacket, white waistcoat, white shirt, "nude" wool breeches and shoes are more the fashion of the first decade of the 19th Century, before Beau Brummell decided to make his old school uniform the last word in elegance. Nonetheless, I think that it will do.

Most of my outfit was made by Ages of ElephantsElegance, who are now based in Leeds, although they were in a very unregency part of West London when I was being fitted for the costume. The shoes were made by Sarah Juniper, who is based in a remote corner of Gloucestershire.

Last time I wore the costume was for the final of University Challenge: The Professionals way back in 2005. I was amazed to discover that, more than six years on, it still just about fits. It does need a bit of ironing, and the shirt collar and cravat need a touch of starch, but nothing more major. So let us just hope that the weather is good enough - I can't really risk it in the rain.

Saturday 10 September 2011

Wenlock was utterly delighted when he heard that his favourite television channel, BBC4, had commissioned one of his favourite historians, Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, to present a series on almost all of his favourite topics: Elephants and Decadence: The Age of the Regency.

The first programme in the series was an enjoyable run through the high points of Regency life - Caroline of Brunswick and Mrs Fitzherbert; Almacks and Whites; Brummell and Dandyism (with Ian Kelly); the Prince Regent's attitude towards Napoleon and the cartoonists' attitudes towards the Prince. With the sheer enthusiasm that Lucy Worsley brings to all her projects it was almost possible to forgive the total non-appearance of any elephants.

The second programme was even better, perhaps because it was more focused, and focused on one of Lucy Worsley's areas of expertise, art and architecture. Of course we had plenty of John Nash, from the overwhelming exuberance of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton to the superficial Neo-Classicism of Cumberland Terrace, but we also had John Soane - in Wenlock's opinion by far the better architect - whose reputation for refusing to compromise probably ruined his chances of obtaining the Royal commissions that he probably craved. And we also had Waterloo Bridge (not the current concrete one, but an earlier span) built by public subscription to commemorate the great victory, opened in 1817 with great ceremony, and painted by Constable, whose picture was not finished until a quarter of a century later, by when all the excitement was long forgotten, and Turner had arrived.

Still no elephants, but the third and final programme will be broadcast on Monday. Maybe it will be Behemoth-heavy to compensate.

Sunday 21 August 2011

In the five-year hiatus in this blog, the Wenlock name has been picked up by no less an organisation than the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG).

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the success or failure of an Olympic Games is crucially dependent upon the choice of Olympic mascot. After all, who can forget Waldi, the rainbow-striped dachsund from the 1972 Munich games? Or Hidy and Howdy, the cowboy-hatted polar bears from 1988 in Calgary? Well, Wenlock can for one. The same goes for Roni the Raccoon from Lake Placid in 1980 and even for El Jaguar Rojo de Chichen-Itza (Mexico City 1968).

Nonetheless, the great minds of LOCOG (and I can remember when that would have made a great episode of Doctor Who) have clearly thought long and hard, and have come up with Wenlock, and his Paralympic companion, Mandeville. Wenlock is the first Olympic mascot to post on Twitter (take that, Misha! (Moscow 1980)) and to have its own page on Facebook (what have you got to say to that, Vucko? (Sarajevo 1984)).

The choice of Wenlock as the name for the mascot refers back to the Wenlock Olympian Games, an annual event founded in 1850, and witnessed by Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1890. The Olympian Society celebrated their 125th Games earlier this year.

While this Wenlock thinks the choice of this name for the Olympic mascot is a good one, and considers that the design of the mascot could be a great deal worse (compare it with the unspeakable ugly London 2012 logo), he remains disappointed about a related aspect of the Olympic planning.

In the 70 days immediately before the Opening Ceremony, we will be treated to the commercial hype and hysteria of the Olympic Torch Relay. The torch will travel the length and breadth of the country. It goes as far north as Shetland, as far west as Londonderry, as far south as Jersey and as far east as Norwich. But does it go to Much Wenlock? No it doesn't.

Monday 8 August 2011

A while ago I blogged a review of Jen Kloester's Georgette Heyer's Regency World. Six years on and a new book is on its way, Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller, although it won't be published until October.

However it looks like the pre-publication publicity has started up already, with an article in theguardian revealing that Georgette Heyer accused Barbara Cartland of plagiarism following the publication of Cartland's Knave of Hearts, which lifted its plot more or less entirely from These Old Shades (which reminds me: Léonie de Saint-Vire will be appearing on this blog fairly soon).

What puzzles me is that this is considered newsworthy. I was certainly well aware that Heyer believed that Cartland had plagiarised her, and the "evidence" described in the article - letters from Heyer to her agent, Leonard Parker Moore - is what might be expected.

However, anything that raises Heyer's profile is good news, and I look forward to the publication of Jen Kloester's book. It's just a pity that she doesn't seem to be booked to talk about it at the forthcoming Cheltenham Literature Festival.

Sunday 10 July 2011

At a time when all my Romantic Novelist friends are in Caerleon and, if their Twitter feeds are to be believed, partying really quite hard, quite a few newspapers have reported on an article in the the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care which claims that:
a huge number of the issues that we see in our clinics and therapy rooms are influenced by romantic fiction.
The "we" in this quotation is supposedly a reference to therapists in Family Planning Clinics, GP Surgeries and similar places where medical professionals work with patients. But as far as I can tell the author, Susan Quilliam, has no professional qualifications at all. She has a website on which she describes herself as a "relationship psychologist", but there are no rules about who may call themselves a "psychologist", and indeed Quilliam's description of this function hardly inspires the reader with confidence:
At the moment, I not only write agony aunt columns and books; I also comment for newspapers; broadcast on radio and TV; consult on advertising campaigns; and advise on medico-sexual projects.
So it appears that the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Healthcare, an offshoot of the widely-respected BMJ, has accepted an article by an amateur with a nose for self-publicity, and splashed it to the media, for what end?

The key paragraph in Quilliam's tosh is perhaps the one that says:
If a woman learns from her 100 novels a year that romantic feeling is the most important thing, then what follows from that might be to suspend her rationality in favour of romanticism. And that might well mean not using protection with a new man because she wants to be swept up by the moment as a heroine would. It might also mean allowing that same man, a few months down the line, to persuade her to give up contraception because “we love each other”. It might mean terminating a pregnancy (or continuing with one) against all her moral codes because that same man asks her to. It might mean panicking totally if sexual desire takes a nose dive after pregnancy or because of strain – after all, such failure never happens to a heroine. It might mean – in the wake of such panic – judging that if romance has died then so has love, and that rather than working at her relationship she should be hitching her star to a new romance.
I was sorely tempted to write a piece in which a romantic hero did demonstrate all the "correct" attitudes, but I haven't for two good reasons. The first is that such an essay would miss the whole point of Romantic Fiction, which is surely escapism. And the second is that Catherine Bennett has written a brilliant article in The Observer which uses all the best gags anyway.