On Léonie

I’m afraid this post is a bit muddled, as I have written it very spontaneously and emotionally. But here it is:

Léon/ie de Bonnard/de Saint-Vire/Alastair…Léonie! is an amazingly complex and iridescent character.

I know that many readers just see her as either annoying or just cute and innocent, with not much going on with her otherwise, but she’s so, so far from that. Her character is very well developed, easily surpassing stereotypes, and highly individual, yet in a very human manner.

She is so often seen as childish or immature, when she’s actually quite the opposite of it, nearly too experienced and mature, in some ways, and inexperienced in others. The things she knew, and the things she did not know, her experiences and her lack of it, were in such a drastic contrast. Not only that, she grew up with hardly a concept of most social conventions, yet with some manners that were actually above her upbringing.

And due to her strange and mostly unhappy past, she became not a childish young woman, but one who was nearly too mature for her own good in some ways, yet with absolutely no concept of what was expected of an adult—or of a woman—and with little “normal” experience, which made her too young and too old, too boyish and too girlish, too well-mannered and too bad-mannered all at once. And also too sensitive, and too insensitive.

For example: The way she had absolutely no concept of what was considered “proper”, despite being in some ways better educated than one would have expected of her (thanks to the Curé, whose interest in the ton was long gone!) and no concept of age, gender, or class, and behaved accordingly.

A good example is the travel back from Versailles. She was still Léon, fell asleep, and cuddled up to Avon and expected him to pick her up should she fall down. Doing this to an adult man, who is also one’s superior, was 1. improper for a young woman, 2. improper for a young man, and 3. improper for a servant. But Léonie didn’t care, because Léonie never learned that these things could matter.

And that’s important, because she was not socialised as a young woman, but so immature of character that she misbehaved like a child. She was socialised to be a surprisingly well-educated and world-wise peasant boy.

But she was mature beneath that. She wasn’t dressed up as a boy since the age of twelve for no reason. She also saw and heard a lot in the inn. And she suffered so much abuse from her sister-in-law that she actually wanted to kill her, and admitted such to Avon. And yet, so many reviews treat her as a spoiled little brat.

Avon described her quite incisively: “A certain cynicism, born of the life she has led; a streak of strange wisdom; the wistfulness behind the gaiety; sometimes fear; and nearly always the memory of loneliness that hurts the soul.”

Her “childishness” and “immaturity” come partly from a desire to be a child in safety, and from a complete ignorance of the superficial social norms associated with adulthood. Or with womanhood.

And Léonie’s learning to become a woman is also a really interesting part of her character, and one that I particularly like, because most storylines of that sort have the heroine either be absolutely relieved to finally be a able to live as a girl, despite being completely unfamiliar to it, or be angry on all things female or feminine.

And while both are completely fine and valid, I love how again Léonie saw no distinction between what was “masculine” and what was “feminine” and made her pick accordingly, she made the distinction between what she liked, what felt right for herself, and what didn’t. She saw no point in separating these things, and while she tolerantly allowed Fanny and Avon to dress her up and teach her how to be a girl, yet still insisted on keeping her breeches and learning how to fence, she quickly discovered what she liked, and what she didn’t, and picked things to work out for herself accordingly, enjoying dresses and swords equally. That’s charmingly realistic, and unusual for most sweet-polly-olivers in literature.

Many people also claim that Léonie saw Avon as a father figure and that her falling in love with him (romantically) was just too sudden. But that’s not precisely true.

Yes, it was sudden, but that’s mostly because her love was “let out” to her own consciousness very suddenly. It was Avon, who thought that Léonie could only look at him as a sort of grandfather.

Léonie only saw him at first as a man who saved her, gave her a home, treated her well, and was otherwise not interested in her. And that was true. (Of course, Avon was already working on his scheme against Saint-Vire, but he was not in any way interested in Léonie, and he wasn’t attracted to her.) They both developed a strong affection for each other, and Avon (and many readers, it seemed) thought she idolised him, while she was oh-so-innocent and ignorant.

But that is not true. Léonie was well aware of who he was, and of his past, and of his general…way of life. But she did not care, because he saved her, because he gave her a good life, and because of her own past, she was—understandably, this is a pro-Léonie post! I don’t blame her—in some ways selfish, and also quite ruthless. Léonie knew about his reputation, and didn’t care, while her own temper and her own savageness were very much underestimated by Avon and pretty much anyone around her.

It was Avon who thought himself to be unworthy of her, and who tried his best to live up to what he thought was her idea of him. Léonie, on the other hand, was or grew aware enough of how class differences worked, and saw herself as inadequate. At this point, both had subliminal romantic feelings for each other. And they ignored them, and went on with their relationship as it was, accepting it as what it was, and making no break ups or demands, which is also beautiful and unusual.

Fanny remarking that Léonie would make a wonderful Duchess what was brought Léonie’s feelings for Avon and her own (presumed) social standing to her consciousness—and still she made the decision (before the Verchoureux unsettled her) to ignore both, and stay as his ward, certain not to be loved by him, but glad to be with him.

This, too, is a sign of both her emotional maturity, and her complex feelings, as well as her respect for the conventions and norms that she was aware of, even if she did not like them. Even if they hurt her feelings.

And when she was told that she was ruining Avon and his reputation, she made the choice to leave. She went to the curé, to live a new life, far away, and the determination to make something of it, despite not being happy, despite having lost, by choice, all that she ever wanted or loved. But, also, not theatrically falling into despair. This is not the action of a spoiled, bratty, immature child. She did so with absolutely no concern for herself, and with a very sad sort of serenity.

She was also a trusting person, but not naive. She trusted Avon, because she had reason to, but she was wary of most people, and always detached. She made no illusions about Avon, even said that he might send her away, or treat her badly, and certainly not love her, but she was grateful for what he did, she liked his company, and she grew to love him. But she trusted him deliberately, she chose to do so, and she knew why most people would have thought it unwise. Because Léonie was not naive—quite the opposite, actually.

Léonie was also well aware what it meant to be a mistress (and would not have minded being Avon’s for her own sake) and what it meant to be base-born. She was very well aware of Avon’s affairs, and couldn’t care less about them, and she knew that during her life in the inn she was at the constant risk of being sexually abused. She was aware of all these things, and she deliberately trusted Avon, and she had very little concern for her own reputation. Avon cared about her safety and her reputation, but that’s a different thing.

And that’s the most beautiful thing about the Duke and his Soul: They both were rather selfish people, yet loved each other selflessly. They were both rather ruthless people, and had no concern about other people’s opinions on them, yet cared a lot about the other’s safety and were willing to give the other up for their own good. And that’s what makes their love story so beautiful.

It’s so often proclaimed about a cute (but annoying) little ingénue and a brooding oh-so-evil old man, with her either taming him or him leading her astray, depending on whether the review is favourable or not. But that is not the truth. They both grew through each other, and were ready to sacrifice their own happiness for each other, and both were very flawed, yet kind-hearted people, although one has to say that Léonie had much better reasons to be so ruthless—but she also went farther than him, and her temper was quite natural, and not acquired through her experiences.

To say that Léonie was just a childish and annoying brat in an inappropriate and absurd love story is completely unfair to her character. Even if one doesn’t personally find her likeable, she is an amazing, well-rounded character, with surprising depth and a great tenderness of character.

So that is that.

These Old Shades, from page to screen

There should be a film adaptation of These Old Shades, and frankly, I should be in charge of it. It’s a pity in itself that there is no Georgette Heyer movie to speak of, with all her Regency novels being a bonanza of material for beautiful films and mini series in the vein of our well-beloved Jane Austen adaptations. But These Old Shades, that’s a different matter altogether. It’s not gentle colours and dry wit, combined with romance and a dash of adventure, it’s far too 18th century, far too lavish and rich, too powdered and patched.

No, with new adaptations of beloved classics, made in different styles, being all the rage right now, we should be making a screen adaptation (whether an extra-length movie for the theatres or a mini-series made by one of our favourite public television broadcaster is of less importance) in a new playful interpretation of the characteristic style of classic period dramas.

The reader might not yet know what I mean, but I do. The problem with this book is that two possible things in a film adaptation could happen: 1., that the makers take the book too seriously and try to present all of it in a completely true manner (or, worse, try to fix what seems wrong!) and 2., that the makers look down on the source material as a silly vintage romance novel and make just a travesty of it, or try to make it modern.

But These Old Shades is a good book, and it’s a book to adapt into film respectfully, but it also sometimes a silly book, with some of its silliness being full intention, and some of it maybe just a sign of age, and both needs to be considered. A loving, respectful self-irony is what it needs, playing all what is meant seriously in a truly serious manner, but not forgetting the wonderful humour, and gently poking at all that is silly about it, showing the nonsensical class snobbery that is, already, called out in the book, and the strange whatnots of the time.

Many reviewers seem to think that the book stands for all that it shows, but that is not entirely true—a certain hypocrisy is exampled, and the protagonists are not always meant to be agreed with (or always agree with each other!), but the strange logics of innate desires…of farming, for example…make a good base for in-jokes that carry and light up parts of the film, and show a certain humorous view of what can be read in the novel, without deprecating it.

But some things need to be played straight. The page boy with the Titian hair, for example. No matter how obvious it might be to all the audience, there shall be no hints beyond what can already be read in the book, or, as we see him, even fewer. Play it straight, no matter how ridiculous it may appear. Play it straight, and reveal it in full glory. And the same goes for certain physical similarities…

And be careful of what you do with the main characters’ relationship. Show what is written, truthfully and with full understanding of context and situation, not wrong readings of others.

What brings me to another—show Avon and Léonie, and all the others, in their full light. Don’t try to make them any better or worse than they are, instead show how flawed and lovable they are, and how they, especially Avon, grow.

I want to see a Léonie who’s all energy and misbehaviour, loneliness and distraught, a strange and elegant boy at one time, and a rogue, yet sweet girl at another. Her eagerness to fight and use weapons, to bite and kick, and fence and shoot, should be shown in exactly the true, wild, chaotic way it is, and not polished to make her a Strong Female Character, devoid of all personality and originality. Her equal delight in her attire as a boy and her new-learned girlhood should be equally shown, and she should not be made into either a tomboy, who hates all feminine things she should wear or do, or into a girl who’s changing entirely through suddenly putting on a dress, leaving all what was behind her, because both would be a simplification of her character and sadly stereotypical. Léonie likes what she likes and does what she wants, whatever that may be.

But above all: show her maturity. And her sadness. Two things that are often told of and sometimes shown in the book, and which are important to her character, even more when we see her moving and talking than in a book which tells a great deal through narration, and through the eyes of Avon:

“A certain cynicism, born of the life she has led; a streak of strange wisdom; the wistfulness behind the gaiety; sometimes fear; and nearly always the memory of loneliness that hurts the soul.”

Léonie, though often called that, is not a child—or maybe she is, but then she is a small child, a true infant, as much as an ancient, and that has to be shown. Making her all cheerful and wild would be unjust, and I dare say, to make better use of modern times in a film adaptation of an old book, than to include pointless nude scenes or lessons in misunderstood feminism, show some of her past, of the cruelty she experienced, and the things she has seen, and not just the results, but the reasons of her having to be a boy for seven years. All this could only be allured to in the book, and while I don’t want anything overtly dark or explicit in a film, I think it would be good to take a tiny glimpse behind the surface.

As for Avon—show his growth. His desire to live up to Léonie’s expectations, or to what he thinks them to be. Let him grow tired of his old image, but don’t overdo it—show that there has always been kindness in him, and that he would never cease to be a dangerous men. Show also his reluctance towards his and Léonie’s relationship, and his fear not to be good enough.

But again with Avon, the matter of dress is important. It would be such a pity if he were to look in a way that would be appealing—and “manly”—today. He is powdered, he is patched, he has a fan, he’s wearing shades of lavender and pink, and ensembles in pure gold, and he is always holding his snuff box tight. He is also frightening and dangerous, nearly sinister, and he thinks himself to be a worse person that he is, or at least, than he becomes. And he is the leading man in a romance. These three must work together, despite the general reluctance of the film industry to make it work.

Which brings me to another thing—the 18th century costumes, and sets, and general aesthetics, must work in accordance to the ideals of the time, not to ours, or what we now deem pretty of that time. But a few decided anachronisms, of the type often found in old period dramas, might just work for the fun of it. I don’t really know right now how to describe what I mean, but it’s the sort of thing I would find just right.

All in all, it has to be grand—bright, rich colours, big costumes, lavish sets, gorgeous scenery, full music, plenty of historically appropriate, but extravagant whatnots, all the strange ideas and ideals of that time, have to be shown in full grandeur. No minimalism, very little realism, no reluctance and no shyness; it has to be bold! And the style, the overall vibe, should be more of something made in the mid of the last century, but with a certain whimsy unique to itself, and an intricacy often found nowadays, all while staying faithful to the book.

Small and silent scenes should be equal to loud and large ones, Léonie and Avon’s sweet moments of Pygmalion given as much importance as Léonie and Rupert saving each other and riding away.

The side characters and their relationships should be explored wholly, but of most importance shall be the relationship of the Duke, and of his Soul. In fact, making Léonie his Soul should be a continuous thread throughout the entire film (or series). Not too much, of course—not to the degree that it gets annoying in narration, and especially not so as though Avon thought of Léonie of a sort of device to become a better person, or any such thing. Only gentle subversion of a common literary theme—a character who has not sold his soul, but, through buying what can not be bought, and what became his, and yet not his property, found his way back to his own soul.

It would be a pity if their love story became one of a cheerful girl fixing a bad man. Léonie is sometimes worse than Avon, at times he is even concerned about her own outbursts, though she may have better, if one can call it that, reason to be so. They both grow through each other and save and protect each other, or at least mean to do so, and at times it even seems that the tables have turned and it is he, who has to make sure that she is not growing too dangerous—which she must not, any more, having him.

For personal reasons, the scene of the drive back from Versailles needs to be included, unshortened, maybe even prolonged. And Léonie’s letter has to be the most heartbreaking thing, naturally.

And as for something I have already mentioned vaguely, and now have to say more to: It is of importance that Léonie is made Avon’s ward so that he can work his scheme against Saint-Vire and so that she can be respectably and legally with him. He thinks that she would only look at him as a “grandparent”, whereas she thinks that he would never want her as for matters of class. He refused her to be his mistress, and both thought the other should not marry them for their respective better. These aspects are too often overlooked by people who want to make everything bad. Naturally, their relationship grows from master and (overjoyed) servant to platonic, even familial affection, to romantic love. This growth is important and more of an example of friends who become lovers, than of anything else.

Now I have to say one last thing: The loveliest ending would be a voice over, maybe of the Duke, or of Léonie, perhaps of Hugh, or even of Saint-Vire, or several together… no! I got it, of the Curé! of the quote from, or even the entire, Epilogue to Eighteenth Century Vignettes by Austin Dobson, from the beginning of the book. It embodies just what I want for the film—a warm and loving, yet critical and gently ironic view of the magnificence, extravagance, splendour, bigotry, concealment, arrogance, and humanity of a not quite so distant century, and of the people in this lovely, silly story, who represent it all so wonderfully.

‘WHAT is it then,’—some Reader asks,—
‘What is it that attaches
Your fancy so to fans and masks,—
To periwigs and patches?

‘Is Human Life to-day so poor,—
So bloodless,—you disdain it,
To ‘galvanize’ the Past once more?’
—Permit me. I’ll explain it.

This Age I grant (and grant with pride),
Is varied, rich, eventful;
But, if you touch its weaker side,
Deplorably resentful:

Belaud it, and it takes your praise
With air of calm conviction;
Condemn it, and at once you raise
A storm of contradiction.

Whereas with these old Shades of mine,
Their ways and dress delight me;
And should I trip by word or line,
They cannot well indict me.

Not that I think to err. I seek
To steer ‘twixt blame and blindness;
I strive (as some one said in Greek)
To speak the truth with kindness:

But—should I fail to render clear
Their title, rank, or station—
I still may sleep secure, nor fear
A suit for defamation.