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.