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.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Lady, Hold Thy Tongue!

As a change of pace from space, our theme today is the problem of women who talk too much, particularly in historical fiction and kindred subgenres of Romance. The problem is not limited to women - though it is most conspicuous with them - and strictly speaking it isn't simply that they talk too much. It's the godawful things they say, feminist rhetoric being not the only offender but surely the worst.

Have I dug myself in deep enough yet?

This subject came up - not for the first time, not for the last - in a comment thread on Carla's blog a few days ago. (A nod in passing here to Susan Higginbotham, who wrote a spoof of bad historical romances only to learn that there's actually a novel out there with a heroine named Topaz Plantagenet. Yep.) A link via Alianore's blog led me to a 1998 article by Anne Scott MacLeod, which lays out the problem neatly. The article, in The Horn Book, deals specifically with YA hist-fic, but the problem is nearly as bad in adult historical fiction.

The problem isn't women talking, even talking back - the problem is women who sound like time tourists from 2007 even though they supposedly aren't. All too often this leads to even a worse situation, where the bad guys all have and display attitudes that are authentic to the times, while the protagonist spouts hopelessly anachronistic rhetoric.

I suspect the problem is not quite as bad in guy books, because (stereotyping madly here!) we are not looking for correctitude. Introduce us to a hero called Hrothgar the Ostrogoth, we expect a good honest barbarian, nothing more. If we learn some cool stuff about the Ostrogoths that is all to the good, but we don't really expect Hrothgar to fret about how representative democracy would be so much better than barbarian kings.

(Where guy books are more likely to go astray is having Hrothgar come up with every military innovation short of the gunpowder era. Trouble handling cavalry charges? No problem! Simply lengthen your spears into pikes, invent pike-square tactics, and teach 6th century Italian latifundia peasants that they can be world beaters just by holding their ranks. No problem!)*

Culturally, women have it tougher. A heroine isn't supposed to be casually indifferent even to minor things like brutalizing the peasants, let alone to her own marriage being treated as a real estate transaction.

Understand here that I'm speaking of Romance, in the broad sense, not bleakly serious historical fiction such as (so I gather) Kristin Lavransdatter. Romance, in all its subgenres, is not primarily about realism. Accuracy in details is desireable, and in some subgenres critical - ladies in waiting at a royal court who talk and think like the Sex and the City gals will blow the willing suspension of disbelief as quickly as starships that maneuver like airplanes.

Yet the worlds of Romance are in essence a theme park where readers go to escape our pretty boring and constraining everyday lives. In real life you may have to kiss the boss's ass, or accept that the sweeps-you-off-your-feet guy is a jerk who will be sweeping some other girl off her feet a week after the marriage. In Romance he falls completely for you, forever, and we'll see just how long the boss can stand up to a 500-megawatt UV laser focused through 10-meter mirror.

Yet it isn't enough just to believe in the hero; at some level the reader has to like them. Which includes relating to their attitudes and values. The quandary is a real one, and it probably makes some settings all but unusable for Romance. I'm not sure that anyone now can really write an antebellum Southern plantation owner as both plausible and sympathetic. American slavery is far too raw, its consequences too much with us, and they can't be swept under the rug the way they could 50 years ago. Even a "good" slaveowner would have attitudes repulsive to us now.

In more remote settings, things are easier to finesse. Classical slavery and medieval serfdom have been defunct long enough that both characters and readers can accept them as part of the world. The test becomes more personal. It's surely plausible that the lady of the estate feels some noblesse oblige toward her peasants, without requiring her - out of nowhere - to reject the basic assumptions of her culture about hierarchy and rank.

(Military experience is helpful in dealing with hierarchical cultures. An officer can and should have regard for their troops, and respect a petty officer's greater experience and knowledge, without challenging the basic social and authority distinction between the wardroom and the lower deck.)

These finesses offer plenty of variations. In Catherine of Lyonesse, the male lead is a corsair galley captain, first seen at the local bagno purchasing some galley slaves - yet so detesting the institution of galley slavery that he immediately frees his purchases, with offer of a bounty if they sign up for his crew. No, no nonsense about the Rights of Man! His concerns are more practical: he merely wants his engine room gang loyal, and able to rise up from the benches with arms in hand when it comes to push of pike.

Because this is Romance, I am pushing the limits just a bit, but only a bit. The Venetians struggled for decades before giving in to slave or convict rowers in the late 16th century. They knew the advantages of free rowers, but with 150-odd oarsmen per galley it became too expensive to man a fleet that way. William de Havilland only has to man one galley, and is willing to pay for performance. (Years later, as Lord High Admiral of Lyonesse, the cost of rowing crews will force him - rather reluctantly - to embrace sailing men-of-war instead of galleys as backbone of the royal fleet.)

I still get to have my cake and eat it too, though, because the reader comes away from the passage thinking he's a pretty decent guy for freeing some slaves, without requiring him to channel Abraham Lincoln.

When it comes to the social roles of women the finesses may require more finesse, but they are possible, and next post I'll discuss some of the available tricks.

* Martin Padway does a lot more than that in Lest Darkness Fall, but he has the excuse of being a time traveller. Elegantly, his attempt to invent artillery fails - he's not able to come up with the right mix of sulpher, charcoal, and saltpeter for a proper bang.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


A few days ago Bernita flattered me big-time in the process of tagging me. Nevertheless I decided to wimp out of accepting the tag. All the blogs I visit regularly (not that many, confessedly) make me think, including Go Fug Yourself.* That's why I keep going back. Of course the purpose of the tag isn't to hail some blogs while dismissing others to the outer darkness, but to let people know about blogs they might never otherwise stumble upon. I'll be lazy and say click on my link list.

However, mulling Bernita's tag also got me thinking about blogs in general. About half the blogs I read regularly are political, "big" blogs that everyone has heard about (where "everyone" = "US political junkies"). Most of these, however, are not really blogs at all, at least not in the sense that Rocketpunk Manifesto is a blog. They may have started as true blogs, but they've evolved into something else, Beltway ezines or political players in their own right. If I comment at Bernita's there's a good chance she'll reply; if I comment at Daily Kos I may get a hundred responses but probably not from Markos Moulitsas ZĂșniga, aka Kos.

"Big" blogs are not part of a conversation in the way that smaller ones are - they can't be, simply because they are big. I imagine that everyone writing a litblog hopes that they'll hit it big and the world will flock to their blog, but something would be lost in the process, and that something is the ongoing conversation. It's like the difference between a club performance and a stadium concert.

For now, at least, it's good to be playing the club circuit.

* Because I'm writing about a royal court, and court ladies could make the Fug gals seem gentle by comparison. Though the entire late 16th century desperately needed a serious fugging, and never got one. What were those people thinking?

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Long May She Wave

It's the Fourth of July, and I'm 'Murrican, so today's theme is sort of a gimme. The United States of America is 231 years old today. This is young as countries go, or so we feel, though if uninterrupted independence is the measure the US is one of the oldest countries in the world. If political continuity is the measure, the two-century-plus club is even smaller. The UK is the only other major power I can think of that has suffered neither occupation nor revolution since 1776. Among mid-rank powers, Sweden and Switzerland, I believe, but few European countries escaped both Napoleon and Hitler, and avoided revolution to boot. Outside of Europe, even fewer escaped both colonialism and revolution. Thailand, perhaps?

Still, 231 years is only about 5 percent of recorded history. In SF we deal routinely with eras reaching that far into the future, and much further.

2238: Roll it around in you mind and taste it. In what may be called the loose consensus future of SF, it is probably the early age of star travel. The solar colonies are long-established by now, and their limitations clear (canned air is expensive). Yet the starships have been heading out for a generation or two, maybe a century, and the first raw young colonies have been founded.

Closer to home (at least my home), the 2238 off-year Congressional election should be looming, plus local details like the governor of California. (Will she be a VR star? Not the first actor elected here.) Jockeying for the 2240 presidential nominations should be well under way. We won't worry about the frontrunners' names - by then the Bushes and Kennedys have perhaps gone the way of the Adamses, and more than 200 years after Barack Obama*, Americans are long inured to names that would once have seemed exotic. But what party labels are they running under?

This is the first place where I feel the niggle of futurity. (Yes, there is another whole set of SF futures where Murica by 2238 has gone the way of Mycenae, leaving only crumbling ruins and growing legends. I am dealing here with "classical" futures, not the post-apocalyptic ones.)

The Democratic and Republican parties have themselves been around a long time, 150 years - in fact, the Democrats since the first recognizable American presidential election, that of 1800. (Just to confuse junior high school students, however, they were then called "Republicans.") Still, the parties are not integral to to my sense of continuity the way the basic political order is.

In just over a hundred years they have reversed their geographical bases; today's blue states mostly voted for McKinley in 1896, and today's red states for William Jennings Bryan. So I would more than half expect the US political parties of 2238 to have different names; even if the names have persisted, what they stand for may have changed. (God forbid, but in 2238 I might have to be a Republican.)

All this, to be sure, is very linear, and I can think of any number of variations. Some are the obvious disagreeable ones - no one in 2238 wonders who will win in 2040, because it will be a 99 percent landslide as all elections have been for generations. Other variations are interesting rather than merely nasty. Perhaps the 2238 presidential election will be uncontested because it has been a ceremonial office for 150 years: What matters, as in any parliamentary republic, is who becomes Speaker of the House. (The US could be converted to an effectively parliamentary system without amending a word of the Constitution.)

Still more interesting, in the spirit of this post, is a 2238 in which who becomes the next US president is no more important, and less immediate, than who is elected Governor of California this fall - the prospect of a colony on Ramona hangs on the balance. To the general public it may be less interesting and perhaps no more consequential than whom Princess Margaret, future Queen of the Anglosphere, is dating.

Broadening the scope of speculation just a bit, are the Saxe-Coburgs Windsors still on the throne? 231 years is fairly long in dynastic terms, long enough for the Royal Family to have changed in course of nature - no need for archaic stuff like princes buried under a stairwell. Or has the monarchy gone the way of the House of Lords and become elective? Or did it cease to draw tourists and get quietly abolished by the Post Office Act of 2103?

The point is that in 2238 we can still imagine a sort of half-recognizable world. There might even be baseball. (No doubt there will also be some back-and-forth ball game or other, but only sports historians would care about its past.) We can imagine the US to still be here in some form - even, from time to time, standing in its haphazard way for the things we want it to stand for on the 4th.

In the conventions of July 4th rhetoric we say the Stars and Stripes will wave forever free. I imagine other countries have their equivalent. But history takes a longer view, and so does SF. Let's take another jump, this time twice as far, 462 years, which happens to land us on the nice round number of 2700.

It feels a lot further from home. This is not a matter of technical change, because an unspoken convention of most mid-future SF is that postindustrial technology reaches a mature level in a couple of hundred years, after which further progress is mostly gradual refinement, like the evolution from the galleon of Drake's day to the frigate of John Paul Jones's. This is historically plausible. Airliners went from box kites to the Boeing 707 in 40 years; 40 years later they are essentially just refined variations. Most air passengers would not know an early model 707 from a present-day jet - till it spooled up its engines; the scream of bare turbojets would sound like something was terribly wrong.

What is unnerving about 2700 is not that the starships are faster and safer than the my-God-were-they-brave ships of 2238. What is unnerving is that it is hard to imagine the Presidential election of 2700. Six hundred and ninety-three years are too much history under the bridge. Even if there is still a United States, someone called its president, and something called an election, the content will surely have been changed out of recognition.

Go 693 years in the other direction and you are in 1314 - you just missed the Battle of Bannockburn by a day or two.** Aye, here's to the Cross of St. Andrew, and all that. And you're three months late to save Jacques de Molay from the stake. Technology changed far less between 1314 and 1776 (except in warfare) than between 1776 and this morning, but that didn't keep everything else from changing. 1314 is a far, far place, as 2700 surely will be.

Yet even so there are continuities. There is, quite emphatically, no UK in 1314, but there is an English monarch, from whom Elizabeth II/I claims descent - I imagine she's descended from Robert the Bruce, as well. Magna Carta is over a century old, and it has been twelve years since Edward I summoned the Model Parliament: What touches all, should be approved of all, and it is also clear that common dangers should be met by measures agreed upon in common.

So even in the year 2700, all is not lost for the Fourth of July. I can plausibly imagine that, 693 years from now, the United States or its lineal descendents thrive. I can even plausibly imagine that, however much its institutions have changed, they have remained true to the principle that government belongs in the public square, not behind palace walls.

* Neither prediction nor endorsement - but the whole idea that a black man with a Middle Eastern sounding name is a leading contender is way cool.

** The date of Bannockburn is June 24, but that is by the Julian calendar - the back-projected Gregorian date would be about July 2-3.