Monday, October 31, 2016

A Writer's Defense of Bitterness

How a legitimate character trait got a bad rap, and why we shouldn't be afraid to use it. 

We've been told our whole lives that being bitter, being petty, holding on to hurt feels is bad, bad, bad. This is probably why in fiction of all genres bitterness is an emotional state left mostly to antagonists, or worse, outright villains. The good, sweet, kindhearted protagonists are supposed to forgive, forget, rise above, get zen with the situation, because forgiveness is divine, etcetera, etcetera.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Poor Mr. Collins, Part 1 - Screen Portrayals of the Character

[In Jane Austen's classic Pride & Prejudice, Mr. William Collins is a distant cousin of the Bennet family. According to the entailment laws of early 19th century England, Mr. Collins stands to inherit the Bennet home and properties, essentially making paupers of the Bennet daughters. Needless to say, these facts cast the character is an antagonist light before the reader even meets him.] 

The Popular Portrayal of Mr. Collins

Mr. Collins is not supposed to be liked. Readers and movie watchers alike are supposed to be empathizing with the heroine Elizabeth Bennet, and since her dislike of Mr. Collins is so extreme—far too extreme, in this author's opinion—movie makers seem to have gone to extra lengths to make certain the audience really, really dislikes Mr. Collins. They did this through the use of various negative male stereotypes such as age, height, presence, and even allusions to lack of masculinity. And since human beings are visual creatures, our popular impressions of Mr. Collins have been formed by the movies much more than they ever were by the book.
Pride & Prejudice (1940)

 In the 1940 version starring Lawrence Olivier as Darcy, Mr. Collins is played by Melville Cooper. Cooper takes on the role at the age of 44, playing a tall, bombastic, attention seeking Collins. Cooper wore stage makeup during filming that was intentionally designed to make him look older than his 44 years. Now, one should never expect or demand precise casting in movies. Casting directors have to look for talent, availability, presence, a whole list of qualities, and sometimes those qualities aren't found in someone who fits the textual descriptions in the novel.
That being said, it stretched credulity to cast a 44 year old actor to play a character that Austen describes as "a young man of five and twenty", who has only just been ordained a minister six months prior. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Jackson & Angelo: Teaching the Regency Gentleman how to Fight.

If you enjoy reading Regency romances, you've probably heard of Henry Angelo, and have definitely hear of John "Gentleman" Jackson. These men operated exclusive training academies for fencing (swordsmanship) and boxing respectively. Jackson's, especially, is a commonly used setting in novels. It is part of the 'template', so to speak; the short list of places and names that seem to typify and close in the world of the upper class gentleman.

Roman fencer, Madam Collie, showing her skill to Mr. Henry Angelo in his room on Old Bond Street, 1816.
John "Gentleman" Jackson & Henry Angelo

        I will dispense with the biographies of the famous English boxer and the Italian who helped create the sport of fencing because they aren't important here. What is of far greater interest, to writers especially, is the boxing academy Jackson operated; a famous gymnasium style haunt where rich and well connected men learned to box, maintained their fashionable figures, and socialized. It was the country club before country clubs.

Despite being a setting in countless novels, we know virtually nothing about the place itself. Here is what we don't know:
  •  How big was it?
  •  How many floors? 
  • Was it like a modern gym with dressing rooms, or did gentlemen just remove their coats and spar in their street clothes? (some of this further down)
  • How did one become a member? 
  • How much did it cost to use the facilities or undertake training? 
  • How often were dues collected? Quarterly? Yearly?
I have scoured the internet and the few other research tools available to me (oh, how I miss my college days when I had university access to everything!), and I can find no information at all about the floor plan or overall layout of the building.

[In One Glimpse (#2, Indulgence), Samuel Shaw leaves the main room of Jackson's and goes to the dressing rooms to change his clothes before leaving. There is no historical evidence of such rooms, but I simply can't imagine there weren't adequate facilities for patrons sweating in a gymnasium.]

These questions may sound trivial, but writers require the trivia. A gentleman hero who has fallen on hard financial times would certainly care about the cost and frequency of membership dues, as would the writer creating him. How is our poor hero to keep up appearances in the cut-throat world of the ton if he can no longer afford his club memberships!? It would also stretch credulity to write a suddenly impoverished character who doesn't seem to suffer any changes in his daily schedule. That's just not reality.

[In One Kiss (#3, Indulgence), Julian pays his fees at Jackson's in order to continue going there and keep up appearances, despite his serious money troubles. In the book, I claim this payment to be quarterly, but there is no real evidence this was the case. The lack of information leaves me free to fill in the blanks as I wish, lol]

But, alas, there are no answers to these questions. Such minutia was rarely thrilling and thus not often mentioned in memoirs or surviving letters. The two memoirs written by Henry Angelo are hardly historically useful. They are--sorry, Henry--mostly name dropping anecdotes designed to show how well heeled and fashionable he was. So, unless some new documents come to light or some out of print memoir gets scanned into the Google Books mountain, there are no answers to such detailed questions.

But, here is what we do know:

1) The school was located at 13 Old Bond Street.

         The building currently occupying the space of 13 Old Bond was built at the turn of the 20th century and today houses a Jaeger-LeCoultre Swiss watch boutique. There is no remaining sign of the 18th century structure, nor can I find any drawings or pictures relating to what stood there before the latest building. Even the famous London Street Views of Mr. John Tallis do not touch number 13 Old Bond (damn it!).

But, considering the row style structure of the area at the time, it is most likely the place was narrow, long, tall, and nondescript. Bird's eye maps of the time period confirm this.

2) Jackson's boxing saloon and Angelo's School of Fencing were the same place. 

           For many years until 1817, both clubs shared the same rooms at 13 Old Bond Street. The actual name of the place was The Bond Street School of Arms. Angelo and Jackson had a professional arrangement by which they had use of the premises on alternating days. Both Jackson and Angelo encouraged their students to study both disciplines in alternation like this. Illustrations of the rooms (see below) show boxing and fencing equipment in the same space, and this is verified by Lord Byron, who wrote in his memoirs of taking fencing lessons in their shared rooms, "...I was a pupil of [Angelo] and of Mr. Jackson, who had the use of his rooms in Albany on the alternate days...."1
       It gets muddy when Byron refers to Angelo's rooms in Albany. The Albany was, and is, an exclusive apartment building in Piccadilly. Either Angelo had instruction spaces in more than one place at the same time, or these references to the Albany are actually referring to 13 Old Bond Street, as that address is barely a 3 minute walk from the Albany mansion. I just can't be sure, but it makes more sense to me that Angelo would be giving fencing lessons in a public space on Bond street rather than in an exclusive private residence (where one would assume people are trying to sleep!). Also, it was fashionable to refer to the Albany simply as 'Albany', as if the place and its immediate surroundings were their own town or country estate.

3) The rooms were very simple.

        Various prints and artworks, such as those from Life in London, show a rather simplistic interior, a large room that could quickly and easily be converted to the necessary purpose. Most public spaces in the 18th century and through the regency were built on the 'any purpose' model like this.

Above we have a print showing the main room of the School of Arms. Jackson is giving a boxing lesson while the man standing at the far left is holding a foil and wearing a fencer's protective mask. As you can see, the room is rather home like. One could imagine it having been a private residence or easily turning into one. At the far right is even a little table and chair where someone might have been writing a letter. [In the days before phones or even the telegraph, it was common for ink and paper to be made available in public places for someone to jot off a note, most likely to be hand delivered by a servant. Can you imagine the local Starbucks today just having some paper and pens lying around for customer use? 'Hey, need to write a letter? Just next to the cream and sugar.'] 

4) The school was a social club as much as a training studio.

          In the above image, the four men on the left are wearing matching buff jackets. These were the uniform, so to speak, of those engaging in training, much likely the quilted tunics of fencers. The three men on the right are still wearing their coats and hat, one even still carrying his cane. It seems they are merely there to observe and chat. Men routinely visited the school just to watch boxing and fencing matches, whether they took instruction or not. Though, gaining entry was most likely still on a "we know you" basis, not open to just anyone off the street.

This image, showing a gentlemen's fencing match, has the same atmosphere; some of the men are wearing fencing tunics and taking instruction, while others are simply there for the show.

[Allow me to take a moment and gush over just how much I love this print. It is my visual muse for Julian Garrott and one of my favorite scenes in One Kiss, which I am still writing. Julian an expert swordsman =D]

In the end, the school of arms Jackson and Angelo ran was just one place, and not even the only place of its kind. There were other instructors and other sporting clubs, but it was a mark of rank and prestige to get instruction for the two greatest. To an historian, it's always disappointing when culturally important places and people end up coming to us with so little information, but we take what we can. And, let's be honest, the holes allow the fictional writer a bit more freedom of movement ;)

[Note: If you see something inaccurate in this essay or have more information about the topics discussed, please leave a comment or sent an email =) I am always looking for more and better research materials]

1. Byron, George Gordon, Baron. The Life, Letters, and Journals of Lord Byron, etc. Ed. Sir Walter Scott, Thomas Moore, and others. London: John Murray, 1860. p. 704.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

2015 Member's Choice Awards

It's an amazing honor to have One Glimpse 
nominated in this year's awards for Best Historical.

      I encourage everyone to participate in the awards and show support for your favorite works this year. Also, the nominations are a gateway to some amazing novels and new authors. Go have a look at the lists =) 

One Glimpse (Indulgence #2) - Amazon, LooseId, B&N, , etc.

       "For years, Sir Samuel Shaw has secretly lusted after the handsome and popular Lord John Darnish, a man known for his good humor, expert riding prowess, and very female mistress. Certain that John is an unattainable fantasy, Sam is shaken when an accidental discovery reveals John might not be as unattainable as he once thought. But what is possible is not always likely, and Sam finds himself trapped between keeping a friend and risking everything for the unlikely hope of something more.

John is terrorstruck when his drunken mistake threatens to shatter the double life he has worked so hard to maintain. His terror soon turns to hope when he finds himself drawn to Sam, who he is sure does not share his interest in men. But subtle things cause him to second guess and fear that his hopes are making him see what he wants to see."

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Regency Upper Class, and 'the right kind' of rich.

Cit!      Mushroom!      Counter hopper!

If you cut your teeth reading old regency romances like I did, you're probably familiar these terms. For those who did not, they represent a very particular form of class discrimination that was common in the upper classes of the 19th century and earlier. Gaining entry to the upper class wasn't a task one could accomplish simply by being rich. You had to be the right kind of rich, and those who made their money from the labor of their hands or sale of their goods were not welcome. Or, as so often happened when a titled person was in need of money, they were begrudgingly welcomed.
Regardless of the slurs being used, they all boiled down to the same upper class fear of the 'other' gaining entry to a very exclusive club. If someone could get in by wealth alone, that opened the door to a near endless list of potential gatecrashers. 
But, if it wasn't acceptable to make money through trade or work, how on Earth did the upper class maintain any kind of wealth? Well, a man had limited options if he wanted to maintain his reputation and still be called a gentleman. Our modern ears hear the word gentleman and think polite, kind, well mannered; the term had a much more specific meaning, once upon a time. A gentleman was, first and foremost, idle. If you worked, you were no gentleman.

The Land Lord: The most approved form of wealth for the upper class was land ownership and rents. As the most idle form of income imaginable, this is the very definition of 'no work'. Unfortunately, it could also be the most unstable. A bad turn in the weather could destroy crops, thus impoverishing the tenants and making them unable to pay their rent. Even the rich lord of the manor can't bleed a stone.
The Percents: Making money from money. The rich would place the vast majority of their capital into bank account that issued returns as a percent, essentially an annuity. They would live off the annuity alone, not spending the actual principal amount. At least, this was what the smart ones did. More than one upper class family was ruined when the patriarch outspent his income and was forced to chip away the principal to pay debts. In Jane Austen's novel, you often hear someone's income described as an annuity, "He has fifty thousand pounds in the six percents." Etc.
Dowries (marrying money): It was easier for a woman to rise in society than a man, since women essentially left their families and joined new ones upon marriage. Because of this, a broke man with maybe a title or grand familial connections could marry a rich girl from one of those "vulgar" merchant families and prop up his dwindling wealth. Pointing out the hypocrisy of disdaining merchant money while taking it in the form of a dowry would be pointless. The regency upper classes were connoisseurs of hypocrisy.
Military & Clergy: These were the only 'professions' deemed acceptable for the sons of gentleman, jobs they could hold and still keep their status. If you were a second or third son with no inheritance coming to you, this was your most likely path (unless your family name was grand enough to attract one of those rich merchant class girls). Still, it should be noted that if a man relied entirely on his military or clerical salary to live, he fell significantly in stature. Wealth was still important, after all.
Other professions such as the law and government service were acceptable, but they placed a man at the fringes, and unless he was able to marry up it was likely his children would drop down into the merchant class and float away from the top. 

Viewed with the historical perspective.

The best way to read historical fiction is through the lens of the time period itself. If you step into a regency romance with 21st century expectations, you are likely to be disappointed. It is easy for us to sneer at the money troubles of a gentleman and say, "Get a job!" when we consider the hundreds of thousands of working class people below that gentleman. We feel uncomfortable having sympathy for a character who, by every comparison to our modern society, would have been so privileged and coddled that it almost boggles the mind. We must struggle to understand a long gone world in which people were born into structures and never taught how to live outside of them. Men and women raised with narrow educations and  abilities, coupled with an ingrained fear and shame of doing anything outside that structure. Reputation was everything, to a degree that we today would be hard pressed to understand. It would take a incredibly strong person to give up their friends, society, to risk embarrassing their family and becoming and object of derision, all for the sake of stepping outside the structure for money. This is where genteel poverty comes from. The social penalties for stepping outside the structure, for working, were such that some families chose to live hand to mouth on the scraps of their dwindling wealth rather than work. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

5 Stars from Pinkerbelle!

I wanted to thank Pinkerbelle Rex (what a name!) for the amazing review of One Indulgence. Writing is not my first job and I doubt I will ever be able to make it my only job, so it truly is the reviews that "pay" me. Thanks for the wealth, Pink ;) LOL

I do believe this review is also at Rainbow Book Reviews