Friday, July 27, 2007

Lady, Hold Thy Tongue! - Part II

A bit belatedly, my follow-on to last week's post.

Writers of historical romance in the narrow sense - i.e., love stories, always integral to the Romance tradition though only part of it - have a particularly tough row to hoe when it comes to striking a balance between authenticity and, well, romance. In a world of arranged marriages, how is the heroine to marry Lord Right, even after she realizes that underneath his jerkiness he's a cool guy?

If her family and Lord Right's happen to arrange their marriage, she's lucky and so presumably is he. The only one out of luck is the author, because there's no story. (Unless - as surely sometimes happened - a couple in an arranged marriage end up discovering that they like each other a whole lot more than they first thought.) In fact, however, love matches were not unknown in the Middle Ages - they were not the expectation, and were viewed skeptically to say the least,* but they did happen. So it isn't impossible. It just has to be handled with some sensitivity to context.

First of all, the lady in question is probably not going to be fiercely opposed to arranged marriages per se. An arranged marriage is what she expects - indeed, at the outset at least, probably all she can really imagine ... until Lord Right shows up. Even when Lord Right does show up, the heroine isn't going to suddenly discover rights that no one in her society ever heard of. She'll simply know what she wants - and how irregular it is - which needn't keep her from doing whatever she can to get it.

We know what some young** women did just this. Anne Scott MacLeod, in pointing out the constraints on premodern women, also shows how desperately some struggled against those constraints. The 15th-century Paston letters, so called for the ambitious gentry family that wrote them, tell of a daughter who resisted the family plans for her: “She has since Easter [three months before this letter] been beaten once in the week or twice, sometimes twice in one day, and her head broken in two or three places.”

I don't know what finally happened to the Paston girl, and have no wish to make further acquaintance of that disagreeable bunch in order to find out. Still, the episode shows how fiercely some women fought against the fate decreed for them.

Surely a great many more gamed the system, finding allies within their families who would support the match they wanted. Put thus baldly it hardly sounds like the stuff of Romance, in any sense of the word. Yet is that all that different from what Elizabeth Bennet was doing - just with so much verve and charm that people still love her for it?

Jane Austin's world was fundamentally still the Middle Ages, merely cleaned up a bit. There was a little more law and order (which meant a lot more freedom for women, able to travel without an armed escort). Yet family and land were still everything: Marriages were for the most part still at least quasi-arranged - and young women knew damn well how much their prospects depended on making a good match, as their society defined it.

And for every medieval father who was a domestic tyrant, surely there was a medieval Mr Bennet: "An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do."

Tart it up with a little swordplay and it should work as well in 1300 as it did 500 years later.

Some medieval women, in fact, must have been more or less expected to take their own marriages in hand - if not overtly, then by being thrust into situations where they could hardly do anything else. A case in point is ladies in waiting at a royal court (or more precisely their junior counterparts, maids of honor). Families struggled fiercely to win these positions for their daughters, for the sake of influence at court. The young women themselves must have been eager to win places, not least for the better marriage prospects available at court, plus - if they played their cards well - royal favor in pursuing them.

In theory a maid of honor was as constrained as any other medieval woman, but in practice? Her father was likely as not still at his estate, only occasionally coming to court. His paternal authority would necessarily be deputized - in part, perhaps, to some family connection; the Earl of Dirtshire, perhaps, who however had more immediate concerns than supervising a third cousin once removed. Much of the authority fell on the Queen, or her Mistress of the Wardrobe - both chiefly concerned that the maid of honor not end up in the King's bed, as some of them did.

Where authority is diffuse, a sharp and tough-minded young woman will make the most of her opportunities - and if she isn't sharp and tough-minded she has no business being a romance heroine in this day and age. (Not that she ever really did.) Nor does an author who can't figure this out have any real business writing historical romance, or any other sort of historical fiction. It isn't that hard. It simply calls for a little knowledge and a little understanding - the author, too, has to game the system.

With a little finesse, a female character in a medieval or other premodern setting can get away with an awful lot. What she can't get away with, and stay believable, is sounding like a time traveller while she's doing it.

* William Cecil, writing of the ill-fated marriage of Robert Dudley and Amy Robsart (or perhaps the prospect of Elizabeth marrying Dudley) observed, 'Nuptiae carnales a laetitia incipiunt, et in luctu terminantur' - marriages made because of the hots start in joy and end in sorrow.
** If the heroine is older, she's probably a widow, with much more freedom.

13 comments:

Rick said...

Wow - my first spam reply, now duly elfed!

Bernita said...

And then there were the heiress marriages which were the gift of the king.
Very futures market.

Rick said...

The heiresses were in a tougher spot, because they were such obvious prizes for the king - or whoever he sold the wardship to - to hand out as goodies.

The best situation for a medieval woman, as in my speculation about maids of honor, was surely when authority over them was blurred or overlapping - a father not at court; relatives at court for whom she's not their primary concern; the crown, also with larger concerns. It's like power politics: the more complex the balance of power, the more room for diplomatic maneuvering.

Some young women ended up having no real supervision to speak of - a notable if slightly postmedieval example being Catherine Howard. She grew up living in what amounted to a girls' dorm attached to the Norfolk ducal household, with no one keeping much of an eye on it.

That she a) became Queen of England and b) went to the scaffold pretty much demonstrates both the opportunities and perils of that situation!

Carla said...

"Where authority is diffuse, a sharp and tough-minded young woman will make the most of her opportunities "

One classic example of a maid of honour who did, or tried to do, just this sort of thing, is Anne Boleyn making a play for Henry Lord Percy. She nearly got him, too, but Cardinal Wolsey and Percy's dad intervened and Percy was packed off back to the family estates and told to do his duty and marry an heiress. (As we all know, Anne later caught a much bigger and more dangerous fish)

Rick said...

Yes - I had the goggle-eyed whore very much in mind, though I didn't mention her. She and Derby probably would have brought it off, even over his father's objections, if Wolsey hadn't weighed in - for which he later paid dearly.

If a woman is marrying "up" her own family is unlikely to object! (That's a main reason to send her to court in the first place.) Do women in romance novels often marry "down?" I rather suspect not - my impression, based on absolutely zero romance reading, is that the problem is more often that Lord Right is of a rival faction than from a lower stratum.

Carla said...

Not often, although I don't have anything like a statistically valid sample to prove it :-) Which is odd, because in real life women did sometimes marry 'down'. Have a look on Alianore's blog for the story of Joan of Acre (king's daughter) and Ralph de Monthermer (obscure squire).

Anonymous said...

There was also Lady Mary Grey, Good Queen Bess's cousin who, without HM's persmission, married a gatekeeper, Thomas Keyes. That got her locked up until his death.

Anita

Carla said...

Anita - And Lady Jane Grey's mother Lady Frances, who married her master of horse a scandalously short time after her husband's death. I suppose one could also add in Lady Frances' mother, Henry VIII's sister Mary, who ran off with the handsome Charles Brandon, much to the annoyance of Henry who had intended to find another profitable royal marriage for her. Marrying down seems to have rather run in that family, doesn't it? :-)

Rick said...

The younger Grey daughters had a talent for getting themselves in a jam. Catherine Grey marrying Herford wasn't marrying down, but it p.o'd Elizabeth big time. (And Cath Grey might have thought she was marrying down - she was apparently very full of herself, another thing that didn't endear her to Bess.)

Anita said...

Carla, then there was Mary's big sister, Margaret, who dashed up the aisle with the earl of Angus before first hubby cooled off. "Really, my dear. A Scottish earl?" Brother dear was not amused.

With the possible exception of Hank 7 and Liz, the Tudors and relatives had quite the talent for disasterous marriages, culminating with Mary, QoS. "Girl, did you think this through?"

Most likely one of the many reasons Bess decided to bow out of the game - truly bad odds.

Carla said...

I'd forgotten Margaret and the earl of Angus. Queen Bess's approach of keeping out of the whole complicated business was probably the only sensible course.

Rick said...

Things worked out better for Isabel of Castile. But it's hard to find potential candidates for Bess or MQS who would not have been ... problematical, in one way or another.

Roger M, Wilcox said...

JULIETTE: "Woe, but I cannot marry him! For he is a Romulan, and I am a Capulet."

(Sorry, I couldn't resist.)