The trade and the ton

I am partial to historical romance novels, and particularly fond of the traditional Regency romance. They are not a so-called “guilty pleasure” for me, as I hold them in high esteem, and delight in them openly. But I do admit that I am rather picky about the books of this genre I read—or of any genre, for I am a picky reader—and always pleased to find a particularly good specimen. Some of those are famous, classics of the genre, others are hardly known.

One of those hidden gems is The Weaver Takes a Wife by Sheri Cobb South.

I found it browsing a goodreads list, and added it spontaneously to the little collection of used paperbacks I bought with a valentine’s gift code from my favourite online book store. It arrived soon afterwards, and I immediately, actually rather randomly, picked it up and read it. And I loved every line on every page!

I expected it to be a pleasant read, nice and just generally good fun. It turned out to be brilliant. The little black volume itself looks good enough, though unassuming, if not a bit off, perhaps, as the type-setting is pretty but at times looks unfinished. As I found out, it was independently published in 1999, when indie and self-publishing was not quite as common as it is now, and the style in Regency romances differed from the older classics and the current revival of the genre.

The story itself is gorgeous. It is written in a far more traditional style, reminiscent of Heyer, yet not at all imitating her. Only a tad old-fashioned, fit to the period and without being stuffy, very funny and full of sparkling dialogue. The supporting cast is great, featuring everything a traditional Regency romance needs, such as a no-good but darling younger brother; a set of caring friends; loyal servants, prone to gossip; and a quite despicable villain. Unlike other books of its type, it also features a delightful group of cotton mill workers.

The hero, Mr Ethan Brundy, is simply amazing, and very unusual for the genre: an illegitimate workhouse brat turned super-rich cotton mill owner, who drops his aitches and dresses expensively, with little taste. He is genuinely kind and caring, responsible and confident. His accent and his earnesty, not to mention his appearance, cause people of the ton to underestimate his intelligence and quick grasp. Nor do they understand that he cares not in the least about their opinion of him—he stands by his background, his class, and his convictions, and he does so with a disarming friendliness. His unwavering strength of character, combined with his exceptional candour, and his controversial opinions, expressed so kindly, are a joy to behold. And so is his love for his reluctant bride.

Lady Helen, or ‘elen, as her husband calls her, is very much unlike him: cold, haughty, and supercilious. She hasn’t a kind word for anyone, except perhaps her brother, and she delights in shoving her numerous suitors away by mere force of rudeness. Though very beautiful, she makes her way through more seasons than her father could afford, because she is still waiting for a man who might not exist. Mr Brundy is, for her, a mere laughing-stock, hardly a real person.

“Mr. Brundy,” she said with a nod, making the most perfunctory of curtsies to her father’s guest.

He made no move to take her hand, but merely bowed and responded in kind. “Lady ‘elen.”

“My name is Helen, Mr. Brundy,” she said coldly.

“Very well– ‘elen,” said Mr. Brundy, surprised and gratified at being given permission, and on such short acquaintance, to dispense with the use of her courtesy title.

Now why does she marry him? Because Mr Brundy, as I have said before, is more than confident, and certain he to reach every goal he sets himself. The moment he sets eye on his ‘elen, he decides to marry her, and her father, a dept-ridden duke, pressures her to accept his offer of her hand. She gives in:

“Mr. Brundy, you are no doubt as well acquainted with my circumstances as I am with yours, so let us not beat about the bush. I have a fondness for the finer things in life, and I suppose I always will. As a result, I am frightfully expensive to maintain. I have already bankrupted my father, and have no doubt I should do the same to you, should you be so foolhardy as to persist in the desire for such a union. Furthermore, I have a shrewish disposition and a sharp tongue. My father, having despaired of seeing me wed to a gentleman of my own class, has ordered me to either accept your suit or seek employment. If I married you, it would be only for your wealth, and only because I find the prospect of marriage to you preferable –but only slightly!- to the life of a governess or a paid companion. If, knowing this, you still wish to marry me, why, you have only to name the day.”

Having delivered herself of this speech, Lady Helen waited expectantly for Mr. Brundy’s stammering retraction. Her suitor pondered her words for a long moment, then made his response.

“’ow about Thursday?”

And now, the (supposed) marriage of convenience slowly evolves into a love-match of misunderstandings. Only Mr Brundy’s friends are truly aware of his sincere feelings for his wife, and only one of them of her feelings for him. Because Lady Helen enters marriage not only thinking her groom a cit, but certain that he’s only after her social standing. He, in turn, takes all her insults to heart and believes that she only married him for money even as her feelings for him grow to fondness, and love.

All this is tricky to write, for has it been done with less grace and skill, both characters and their romance would have been insufferable. But Mr Brundy’s love for his wife and his way with her are wonderful, as lovely as could be, and her growth as a person, and the development of her feelings are plausible and well-written, gradually, yet with sudden, clear reason.

There are sudden, tender moments of a shy, reluctant couple; adorable scenes of the Pygmalion kind; dinners and balls and dress fittings and the refreshing contrast of trade and ton—and a significant trip to the industrial North.

And in the end, there’s a great, rather Heyer-esque adventure, which causes first more secrets and misunderstandings, and brings our couple to defeat the villain, and finally admit their mutual love to each other.

It is truly a gem, I promise. It is a Regency romance in the most traditional sense, and yet thoroughly original. It’s funny, but never silly. Sensual, but restrained. Romantic and sweet, but never saccharine. All in all, a true delight.

On Sally and Mary and Love

A discussion (actually, just my rambling addition to someone else’s very wise words) about Lord Peter Wimsey’s love for Harriet Vane and Wodehouse romances, made me think of Elizabeth Goudge and of Sally Adair’s and Mary O’Hara’s approaches to falling in love, and now I have to make a post with two scenes about which I have often wanted to write something, yet somehow never did.

Here’s Sally, seeing David for the first time, or rather, for the first time in person:

Sally stood very straight and still, looking at the face that she had felt she had always known when she had seen it in her father’s drawing. Only this face was not quite like the face of the drawing. That had been an unmasked face. This was the same face, but masked. She didn’t feel anything very particular; only rather odd and tired. She wondered vaguely if this was falling in love. They said in books that one felt so wonderful when one fell in love. She wasn’t feeling wonderful at all; just odd and a bit sick. Books were very misleading.

And also, immediately afterwards:

They went back to the smoke-filled room, and there was such a noise that they could say good-bye only wordlessly. David’s gesture of farewell, in the brief moment before the crowd absorbed him, was memorable for its grace, but so mechanical that Sally felt he had pushed her straight out of his mind and slammed the door. She went at once, and all the way home, though the sun was shining, she hugged herself in her fur coat because she still felt cold. She made no plans for seeing David Eliot again, though with such a famous father that would have been easy. She did not even mean to question her father about him, or about the portrait in the studio. Sally had too much pride to batter against a door that had been shut.

And here’s Mary, when she first meets Michael:

“Is she so extraordinary?” asked Mary.

“Very extraordinary. She gave me the job, though I had no reference, and when I told her I’d been in prison she never asked why.”

It seemed to Mary that the room was tipping over. The table in front of her seemed to be on a slant and she braced her shoulders. But the earthquake was in her own mind, where recent thoughts and phrases were falling headlong one over the other… . Human nature is fundamentally odd. Ruined, but so lovely. One is 10th to pass on. I always wanted to marry a hero, but I would give my life for one of the children… . The room steadied about her again and she found that he was helping her on with her coat. She had not looked at him. Why all this melodrama in her mind? No one was asking her to give her life. Nothing was required of her at present but common politeness and not to pass on. She turned round and smiled at him. “Are you in a hurry to get back to Josephine, or shall we walk as far as Farthing Reach, where the swans are? It’s up-river a little way. Not far.”

“Yes, I’d like that,” he said. 

And… these scenes mean so much to me. They are the subversion, and yet true essence of “love at first sight” and so pure, in the sense of… of clearness, so real and even raw.

Sally falls in love with David the moment she sees him, and she accepts it. Not happy, not sad, but also not doubting or analysing or hoping for anything in particular. She realises who he is, and that she loves him, and, assuming that nothing could happen of their love (which is, of course, not right, but that’s a matter for later in the story…) she accepts it. And this… this is so much different from the usual love at first sight. It is even rather unromantic, in the usual sense. It is so quiet, and yet also so blunt, so clear and accepting. Sally loves him, and though she doesn’t really like it, or want it, or build any hopes on it, she takes it as it is. David, of course, will later on work on loving her, and even more so on allowing himself her love, on being worthy of it.

And Mary? Mary is even more clear and blunt about it. Mary always wanted to marry a hero, she always expected a rather simple and pleasant romantic life. And when she met Michael, also falling in love quite immediately, and had her first shock at learning that he was in prison, her reaction was not “Oh no, this man I fell in love with was in prison, so now I will back away” but “Oh no, I wanted to marry a hero, but now I fell in love with a man who went to prison, so I will have to marry him”. And then, of course, she got back to the ground a little, wondering why she felt such a pressure, and she, like Sally, accepted that there was probably nothing even expected of her. But she loved him. And he, like David, made up his mind to be worthy of her love.

Triple Book Rec: Literary Lovers

“I you liked this, you’ll love that!” is not usually a concept of book recommendation that I agree with. I might be very picky, or I just have a different idea of which books are similar to each other, but very often I find that these recommended books simply share some superficial traits, yet otherwise don’t real suit each other, nor appeal to the same readers.

But there are some cases that I personally find to just fit. Incredibly well, in fact. Those books often have a similar air about them, evoke a similar feeling, or simply and plainly suit the same taste.

As for these three books, I recommend them individually, but I also have to say that, if you liked one or two of these, you’re very likely to also enjoy the others. Or the other, respectively. These three certainly have a similar appeal, they are cosy and gentle, and very funny and witty. But they also have very similar themes: gentle, intelligent romance and a beautiful blend of fiction-within-fiction.

There’s Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. Though one of her less famous novels, it is certainly a classic, and in my opinion frightfully underrated. It is a splendid satire, but it also stands well on its own as a story, and while different from her later novels, it already has the wit and spark that makes Jane Austen so well-beloved. Catherine is a reader, rather than a writer, but her imagination is very active and independent, and sometimes takes a bit too far. Unlike the heroines of the other two novels, it’s not her own writing that gets her into trouble. Her ideas are more than sufficient. The romance is as splendid as any other Austen romance, in fact it’s particularly good. And it’s very, very funny.

And Sylvester, or the wicked uncle by Georgette Heyer. Unlike most enemies-to-lovers stories it is far more about Phoebe and Sylvester’s determination to dislike and misunderstand each other, and also about the way they sometimes understand the other better than themselves. Phoebe is a novelist and based the characters in her book on people she met, and Sylvester’s air of arrogance and the shape of his eyebrows make him an excellent villain. But it’s the things she made up herself that cause the actual consequences of her writing—including a kidnapping to France, a great many misunderstandings, and some improvement of character.

Miss Buncle’s Book by D. E. Stevenson is about Miss Buncle who wrote a book. Miss Buncle had no money, which is why she decided to write a book, and she insisted on having no imagination, so she based her characters on real people she knew, and most of them didn’t like it at all. The odd thing is just that all of a sudden people began to behave differently, and things she wrote in her book—made up entirely, without any imagination!—turned out to be real. But while Miss Buncle herself changed and grew and learned, hers was the only story without a proper outcome, even in her book’s sequel. The romance is not as obvious in this book, but it’s lovely and gentle, and it does feature one of the sweetest marriage proposals I have ever read.

So, if you like books, and books about books, and romance, and women writing about women who write, and sweetness, and romance novels with actually good stories, or rather novels that do have actually good romance—these might be for you! And they are all very good autumn reads. 🍂

There’s rue for you: and here’s some for me

I am re-reading The Herb of Grace parenthetically, one chapter a day. 🌿

It’s such a healing, lovely book, and I want to extend my friendship with it, and revisit Damerosehay and the Herb of Grace in the beginning autumn. I find that very appropriate. And it’s so pleasant and calming to read it so very slowly and evenly.

I have already read the first two chapters. Chapter One reminded me of how much I do love Sally. I love every paragraph of her description. With some parts, the overly specific ones, I identify more than I ever thought I could identify with a character in a book. The others, I simply enjoy. She is such a thoroughly enjoyable woman. And the children asking whether she’s over age for bananas is so sweet.

And I love her first meeting with David, and the way she felt. It reminds me of the first time Mary and Michael meet, in The Rosemary Tree. Elizabeth Goudge’s characters, especially in her contemporary books, are so thoroughly human, and so are their romances. There is a special quality, almost a sort of magic, but at the same time such a painful realism, that makes them so very superior. In these two scenes, it’s the sudden realisation, and the quiet acceptance. Unexpected and unsentimental, not until wanted, but valiantly taken and valued. This, and the very dedicated and laborious love, and the combination of both, are everything.

And David’s feelings! The way he hated that he couldn’t talk openly, just while Sally wondered about his mask. The way he adored Sally’s unaffectedness from the war, while she was feeling ashamed of it. The way they were both right, and thought themselves wrong.

And Chapter Two! Oh, Nadine. The reader suffers because of you and with you—and grows and rejoices, because of you and with you. The violets. I love these details. Whether one reads it as part of a trilogy or as a stand-alone, the way things are coming together reads differently depending on whether one already knows some of the characters, or doesn’t, but it reads equally well. That magic of recognition and wonder, I dare even call it a sort of suspense, the small moments of “oh, this!” are always so lovely. But Jill’s letter is such a small, sad moment…

And I love the bit about Nadine and the Little Village, and that she loved being at Damerosehay because it always changed her a little, and not in spite of it. And I love to see her and Hilary interacting. To see two characters in an ensemble story who usually don’t have much to do with each other, who are from “different ends” of the story, so to speak, appear in the same scenes is always a great joy to me.

The Man under the Umbrella

I am well aware of Friedrich Bhaer’s unpopularity, but I don’t understand it. I am aware of it, because it has been so often stated and explained; I don’t understand it because nothing of it makes sense—personal preferences aside, everyone has a right to like (or dislike) whoever they want, after all.

“Me wants me Bhaer!”—Tina, the daughter of Mrs Kirke’s French maid, said as she flung herself into the arms of this controversial character, and her words express my own feelings perfectly.

The accusations are numerous: Bhaer was merely an afterthought, to screw the readers, he is unattractive and boring, suppresses Jos own freedom as a writer and forces her to express herself in a posh manner, and of course, he isn’t Laurie.

But we’ll start in the beginning. Little Women has originally been published in two parts: Little Women and Good Wives. Later editions often put them together, but the distinction between the two books is an important point in the discussion of Friedrich Bhaer.

After Little Women first came out, Louisa May Alcott received several letters from readers who asked about the further lives of the March sisters, and especially about whom the little women would marry. Ms Alcott was not delighted by this question, and of her character’s being reduced to the subject of matrimony, as was rather usual back then, and which, in return, brought many modern readers to the conclusion that marriage by itself were a sign of a lack of liberation in the heroines and could therefore not correspond with Ms Alcott’s own intentions.

In particular the still popular wish, that Jo and Laurie should become a couple and marry displeased the authoress. But that does not make the insinuation that Friedrich’s part was caused by mere spite true.

Criticism of Friedrich Bhaer comes from those who would have liked to see Jo with Laurie, as well as those would have preferred her to remain unmarried. An argument for the latter is that Louisa May Alcott herself has never been married, and that Jo was based on her in many respects. But Little Women is no direct autobiography and contains many elements that didn’t happen as described in the lives of the author and her sisters. The common attempt to equate Jo and Louisa cannot succeed. The Marchs are obviously based on the Alcotts, but they are not them. But this awkward mingling of real person and fictional character is applied nearly exclusively to Jo.

The desire for an unmarried role model is common and understandable, especially as many readers identify with Jo and often think differently about these things than the 19th century audience—although it cannot be denied that the marital status of a novel’s heroine continues to receive a great deal of attention.

But to say “For this reason I would have preferred Jo to stay unmarried,” would be a better choice than, “Jo was never really supposed to marry, it’s only in the book because Louisa May Alcott has been pushed to do so. Jo is in truth single!” But in truth Jo doesn’t exist, only Louisa, and in the book, Jo married, and she did so because the author wanted her to.

The question, whether a marriage of Jo and Laurie would have received as much rejection, nowadays, I mean, because even those would prefer Jo to be single, seem to rather tolerate Laurie than Friedrich. But this is not supposed to be a comparison of both men—I like Laurie a lot, and I would not have had any issue had he and Jo become a couple. But they didn’t: Jo didn’t want it, Louisa didn’t want it, and in the end it turned out that Jo and Laurie could continue their wonderful friendship, though in a matured way, and still find a different sort of love each.

The notion that it was a sign of conformation or even submission, shows a completely incorrect understanding of the societal context of the story’s time. It may come from the cliché of the young woman who has to marry a boring old man, and who liberates herself by eloping with a brooding young rake; or from the good social standing of Germans, especially German academics, in contemporary America.

But Friedrich is, according to all economical and societal standards of that time, no reasonable, let a lone conforming choice—not within the story, and not from the point of view of the then audience. To claim that his character had been created because of societal pressure is completely incorrect.

Friedrich is poor; the idea that older men used to be preferred was based on the fact that they usually had build an existence (or increased it) and this promised financial security. To prefer a poor, older man over a young, very rich man, who still had the prospect of becoming even richer, was no decision made of reason, and not at all understandable for onlookers.

Beyond that, Friedrich had a very bad position as a German. German immigrants were a fairly large minority in America back then; most of them were poor, and even more so very unpopular. One must not forget that the Hummels, from whom Beth contracted the scarlet fever that later led to her death, were Germans, too. But the Alcotts liked Germans—and so did, apparently, the Marchs. Louisa May Alcott’s parents were transcendentalists and felt very drawn to German culture, in particular literature. Louisa May Alcott was born in the same year that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe died. She loved Goethe and visited his house in Frankfurt—thought she didn’t have time to go inside. It is obvious that Friedrich is a character whom she liked to write and who came very close to her personal literary ideal.

But what is much more important: Friedrich supports, respects, and values Jo.

It brings me nearly physical discomfort to read what’s claimed about Friedrich and his attitude towards Jo and her writing. That he would belittle her, keep her from writing, push her to betray herself and lose her way. Yes, even the fact that Jo writes in later years, is read as a rebellion and secret disobedience towards Friedrich.

It’s a mystery to me, how one could read a book and interpret it in such a twisted manner. It seems that, whenever Professor Bhaer appears, some readers throw all reading comprehension overboard. To think Friedrich had condemned Jos own stories and asked her to write what he considered “higher literature” is complete nonsense. And so is the idea that he had asked (or forced) her to stop writing altogether.

Friedrich knew that Jo wrote and was very enthusiastic about it. He also had reason to assume that she published stories in papers, but he could neither be sure about that, nor about what sort of stories they were. He saw a magazine of the sort, for which she hadn’t written anything, and criticised this sort of stories (and their title illustrations) in general, especially their accessibility for children, without referring to Jo’s own stories, as is commonly maintained.

He did worry however, that Jo, due to a lack of money, protection and experience, could possibly write for exactly this sort of paper, and, rather impulsively, made an effort to dissuade her. Jo argued that one could earn money that way, and Friedrich, a poor man, mind you, remarked that one should rather sweep dirt in the streets.

One can—and should—not deny that Friedrich wanted to influence Jo in this matter. But I’ll have to remark two things: For once, I don’t see what’s wrong about that. He didn’t take the decision away from her, which he neither could nor would do, he simply stated his opinion—an opinion she valued from her own free will. Jo wouldn’t have changed anything, had she not agreed with him. Jo was stubborn and headstrong, and would not even have her nearest and dearest change her mind. She wouldn’t have read her story with Friedrich’s eyes, if she hadn’t truly agreed with what he’d said. That aside, it’s Friedrich’s right to tell his opinion, regardless whether Jo or the reader liked it or not. The idea that a “good” man in a novel always has to tell the heroine what she wants to hear, is a horrible, pseudo-feminist trend, which goes hand-in-hand with the idea that a person (especially a woman) would betray themselves (herself) through learning and growth. Anyway—to claim that Friedrich oppressed Jo, and that she would let him do so, is an insult to both of them.

Secondly: Friedrich has not once talked degradingly about Jo’s own stories. He hadn’t read them, couldn’t even be sure whether she had published any. He also never criticised that she wrote. His criticism was directed towards a specific genre, one could even say business or even milieu, which he thought would be harmful to both Jo and her work. He wanted Jo to write, but he didn’t want her to do it only to earn money, instead to write what she truly wanted. Jo’s first reaction was to write an overtly moralist, sermon-like story, but with time she balanced it out and found her way (back) to what she truly liked.

Here, too, the criticism describes the absolute opposite: Friedrich never wanted Jo to stop writing what she liked. He wanted her to start. At that time, Jo cared more about her income than her own development and expression, which did her no good, and of which Friedrich couldn’t approve.

Later on, Jo wrote neither secretly, nor in rebellion—she wrote as she liked, and Friedrich always supported her.

Friedrich also didn’t consider (commercial) writing to be unsuitable for a woman, and wanted Jo to get published and be successful as a writer. He even took her to a symposium of famous writer, which in the end disillusioned and sobered Jo, but which also helped her not to feel intimidated by the so-called Greats. Friedrich, too, would not be intimidated and, reserved as he normally was, argued ardently for his convictions, which impressed Jo persistently.

Friedrich did not make Jo more womanly. In fact, Jo and Friedrich liked and respected each other’s characteristics and peculiarities that were often seen untypical for their respective gender. Jo became, as she grew older, less boyish, but that was partly due to her increasing maturity, as she mostly left behaviours behind that would also not have suited a grown man, and on the other hand, because her appreciation of other women had grown—Jo had, after all, the tendency to take men and “manly” things more seriously.

Friedrich liked and loved Jo just as she was. But he also supported her development and growth. And it’s funny that this of all things is so often criticised, even condemned, even though it is what Little Women is largely about.

No character in Little Women is perfect. Not Friedrich, not Jo, and nobody else either. But Jo is often seen as a perfect heroine, and her development as self-betrayal. But one cannot rob a book of its own essence to modernise it. The notion that Jo could only be a good role model if she would never think or act differently than she did at the age of fifteen, because all maturity, all learning, were a sign of submission and an antiquated world-view is a dreadful way of thinking by itself. But if one happens to be of that opinion, then one should also stand by it rather than selling it as the author’s own belief.

That aside, it seems that nobody is allowed to criticise Jo. No other character, and no reader. Her sisters have all been degraded cruelly, but Jo has to be considered perfect, just as she is. She is the representative of all strong girls and completely infallible, or else valuable only through her faults. That is the common opinion—though not the writer’s, who considered her protagonists mistakes, and her development, and to acknowledge them, very important. That does not make her a lesser character or a bad role model for young girls—on the contrary, it makes her human, and gives her room to grow.

Transcendentalism was an important influence for Louisa May Alcott, although she did not at all view or take it uncritically. Growing up is the central point of this novel, and, although I am sure that Jo would have managed to do so very well on her own, Friedrich was a great help for her, to look forwards, and to become a big woman, while always staying true to herself.

And, at last, the romance. I’ll say three things:

Every person feels differently. The interaction of romantic and other feelings, and the cognition of them, is highly individual, and Jo and Friedrich have found what is just right for themselves.

The chapter Under the Umbrella can be re-read over and over again. Those who have forgotten just how romantic Jo and Friedrich are, should read it again.

Thou is often a subject of criticism—and perhaps the most painful one of all. What is presented as Friedrich’s attempt of shaping Jo to his demanding ideals, is nothing but his way of approaching her. For thou is viewed quite wrongly nowadays—it’s old-fashioned, and thus often seen as posh or dusty, and as a distanced form of address. But the English you is much rather comparable to the German Sie, which is formal and impersonal, and used by strangers and people whose connections are merely business-like. Thou on the other hand, is Du, the informal, personal and intimate form of address, used by friends and family. It is also to be noted that children are always addressed Du, while children address all adults, aside from family and friends, with Sie, which indicates the adults’ authority. This is was much stricter in the 19th century, and through initiating thou, Friedrich opened towards growing intimacy, while raising Jo on the same level as him, a grown woman and his equal. It is a loving and respectful gesture.

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.