Nicola here, with a quick and light-hearted look at title trends. I’m just back from the wonderful RNA Conference where one of the sessions I attended was on fashions in commercial fiction. There was some discussion about the importance of titles and the way that publishers brand a particular style of book. This led us on to the “girl” phenomena. It started with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I think. Then there was Gone, Girl, the Girl on the Train and many, many other girls in various situations, places and circumstances, mostly with a hint of danger about them. Last year over 60% of one UK bookseller’s top titles had a female noun in them whether it was girl, wife, mother, sister or something else.
Rebecca Eaton has the all-time great English major job: as executive producer of Masterpiece Theater, now known simply as Masterpiece.
I'd never heard of her, and her name has nothing to do with the fact that the heroine of my book River of Fire is named Rebecca Seaton. But when I heard that her memoir about her work, Making Masterpiece, , was coming out last fall, I immediately ordered it. Partly that was because I'm always interested in how stories are filmed (I wrote a novel around that subject), but more because Masterpiece Theater had such an impact on me and many of the people I know.
Nicola here. Today I’m talking about costume dramas old and new. It seems to me that after a long period with very little historical drama on TV and even less on film, there has been a revival of interest in the genre, at least from some television companies. Hurrah! It’s been a long time coming but to me the new historical series are very welcome and of course they bring with them a modern spin on an old genre.
I have such happy memories of the UK costume dramas of the 1970 and 80s. The epic Forsyte Saga had been running for a while when I became old enough to watch “grown up” TV and Upstairs Downstairs was also a feature of our Sunday Night viewing. The ultimate historical drama for me though was Poldark. Based on the novels of Winston Graham, it was for me the epitome of everything that a historical romance should be: the handsome hero, the feisty heroine, the wicked cousin, some smuggling thrown in and lots of passion and angst and intrigue. In those days I didn’t even notice the wobbling film sets and the terrible special effects. It was all about the characters and the story. This was the era of plentiful historical drama. There was Dick Turpin, based on the exploits of the legendary highwayman, and Smuggler, with Oliver
Tobias as a naval officer turned…well, smuggler. There was Arthur of the Britons (Oliver Tobias again, as a young King Arthur) and Robin Hood with Michael Praed, and many more.
Cara/Andrea here, March is a month that symbolizes birth and renewal, however today I’m going to talk a little about death. Now before you rush to press the delete button, let me hasten to add that I mean symbolic death. Or, to be more precisely, literary death.
At the risk of mixing metaphors, I’ll admit that what got me thinking about the theme was the recent season-ending television episode of Downton Abbey. (If some of you—the ones who are living on Mars, perhaps?—have not seen the show, be forewarned, there are spoilers here.) Matthew Crawley, one of the main characters was killed off in an unexpected (at least it was to me) plot twist. And once the initial shock had passed, I got to pondering how I felt about the development.
I confess, I was angry. How could the show’s author (the esteemed Julian Fellowes ) do this to his audience? Here I had invested three seasons watching Matthew’s relationship with the main heroine, Mary, develop. As in real life, the going hadn’t been easy for them. Misunderstandings, stubbornness, pride—a whole host of human emotions had made things hard for them to come together, faults and all. And then, just as things were getting really interesting between them—whack! Matthew’s gone.
But that said, my feelings were tempered a little by a previous experience with the same situation. I am a big fan of mysteries, and some of my favorites are the Inspector Thomas Lynley series by Elizabeth George. Now, television does tend to knock off characters occasionally, but in literature it’s one of those cardinal rules that an author mustn’t kill off one of the main protagonists. Well, George turned that rule on its head when she had Lynley’s pregnant wife (we had spent years watching them going through complex emotional gyrations to finally end up tying the knot) die at the hands of a random shooting.
Well, her readers were up in arms! So much so, that George decided to write an essay explaining why she did it. Now, I was one of those irate readers, so I was curious to know her rationale. And I found it so interesting that I thought it worth sharing some of her thoughts here.
She begins by saying, “ . . . the first thing you need to consider is the two alternatives available to a writer when she decides to create a series that features continuing characters. A series like this can be approached by freezing the characters in time, place, and circumstance. Or it can be approached by allowing the characters to grow, change, develop, and move through time. Characters who have been frozen in time, place, and circumstance are best exemplified by Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes (with the obvious exception of that trip over the waterfall), and Dr. Watson. On the other hand, characters who are not frozen in time, place, and circumstance but who move forward, growing, changing, and developing can be found in books like Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels, Winston Graham’s Poldark novels, as well as the children’s books by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her Little House books and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books.”
Okay, an interesting distinction. George then explains, “For perhaps the six years preceding the creation of With No One as Witness, I knew that Helen Clyde—as I’ve always referred to her—was going to die . . . . Why? The answer is simple. Helen’s death, unlike the death of any other character, had the potential to affect more greatly the characters left alive. Her death was like a hand grenade thrown into their midst: The aftermath allowed me myriad story lines to pick up on, based upon the devastating impact of this crime on the other characters. No other death would have done that for me. As I looked at it, no other death would have come close.”
Hmmm, but maybe readers didn’t want a hand grenade thrown into their midst. Well, George has an answer to this. She finishes her essay by saying, “The literary philosophy I have always adhered to is this:
When a writer writes, as John Steinbeck put it so eloquently, he seeks to form a trinity, and this trinity exists only when the work, the writer, and the reader are joined together. It is a communion of sorts, in which the reader is invited into a world created by writer and is asked to feel something about that world and the people in it. That is the purpose of novels. On one level, of course, novels do entertain and divert. But on another, deeper level, they move. In creating the scenes leading up to Helen Clyde’s death in With No One as Witness, I sought to place the reader in a position not dissimilar to Lynley’s own. My purpose in this was to have the reader feel—if only marginally—something of what Lynley felt when he had to authorize the termination of life support for his wife and their son. Had the reader completed the novel, tossed it to one side, yawned, and walked into the kitchen for a beer and a bologna sandwich, the novel would have failed in its purpose. There would have been no trinity. But the reader didn’t do that. The reader cared. The reader wept. The reader raged. These reactions spoke to the fact that the novel succeeded in doing what novels have always been intended to do.”
I found this a very thought-provoking explanation. Now, emotionally I wasn’t really any happier, but I have continued reading the series, and find she’s done some very interesting explorations into how people pick up the pieces after a shattering life experience.
So, what about you? How do you as a reader feel about losing a beloved character from a series? Do you agree with George’s thinking? And lastly let’s end by having a little fun with a serious topic. A lot of people have said killing Matthew from Downton Abbey was too easy a way out. Fellowes could have come up with a more creative way to get rid of him. (Apparently the actor wanted out of the show.) What scenario would you have used to get him out of the picture? Here’s mine: He’s sent to New York to help Mary’s American grandmother with some crisis. Now, Matthew was not born an aristocrat, so he finds America’s egalitarian attitudes refreshing after England. He meets a woman journalist and is intrigued by her independent spirit . . . Anyone else want to play?
Nicola here! Today I’m dipping into the subject of titles
once again. This is a hot topic in the UK at the moment because there is a bill
before parliament to change the laws of succession to the throne. You would
think in this day and age that a proposal to change the law to allow a
first-born princess to take the throne with precedence over a younger brother
would not be controversial. Not so. It has stirred up a great deal of debate,
not least as to whether the same rules should apply to the aristocracy.
Kings are different
The rules pertaining to the succession to the monarchy have
always been different from those that apply
to aristocratic titles. At present
succession to the British throne is by what is called male-preference cognatic
primogeniture. This means that if the reigning monarch has a son, he will
inherit regardless of whether he has elder sisters. If there is no male heir
then the eldest daughter will succeed as in the case of the current Queen. This
wasn’t always the case, of course. Originally in England and Scotland there
were no fixed rules governing succession to the throne. Witness William the
Conqueror willing the throne to his second son William Rufus whilst his eldest
son Robert got the Duchy of Normandy. Robert didn’t like it, and invaded, but
he was paid off. Then there was the anarchy when Henry I named his daughter
Matilda as his successor but his nephew Stephen took the throne instead.
Stephen and Matilda fought it out over a period of years and it was her son,
not his, who inherited next. Richard II named his nephew Arthur as his heir
rather than his younger brother John. Then there were all the primogeniture
squabbles of the Wars of the Roses. A little known fact is that Henry VIII’s
will proposed that his daughter Elizabeth should be succeeded by Lady Anne
Stanley, descendent of his sister Mary, Duchess of Suffolk and Charles Brandon.
That, of course, never happened.
Out of all this confusion came the Act of Settlement of 1701
which still governs succession to the throne, with various other pieces of
legislation also in effect. The current amendment proposes that the first-born
child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Prince William and Princess Kate)
should one day inherit the throne regardless of whether it is a girl or a boy.
The oldest of the old boys’ clubs
In contrast to the monarchy, inheritance in the aristocracy
has in the main part been governed by male primogeniture. This means that in
most cases the title – and the entire estate – descends in the male line only to
the exclusion of women. So if the Duke of Dastardly has six daughters and no
sons then his title will go to his eldest surviving brother and from there to
the brother’s sons. If there are no close male relatives it will go to the
fifth cousin twice removed rather than to the daughters.
Inspiration for Plots
We all understand this. It is the basis of any number of
plots in historical fiction. The Downton Abbey story begins with the fact that
the Earl of Grantham has three daughters and no son, his close male heir is drowned
in the Titanic and the title is going to descend to Matthew, a distant relative
and (shock, horror!) a member of the middle classes who works for a living. How
different it would all have been if Lady Mary Crawley had been the heir!
Then there is Pride and Prejudice. The only reason that the
odious Mr Collins is sniffing around Longbourn is because he is Mr Bennet’s
heir. The five Bennet daughters cannot inherit the estate. So Mr Collins is
looking to smooth matters over by marrying one of them. Implicit in this is the
idea that as he is taking their inheritance, one of his responsibilities is to
look after the disenfranchised females of the family.
The idea of male primogeniture is pretty heavily embedded in
a lot of families, witness the number of aristocrats who keep on having
children until there is a male heir. I loved the story of the Sackville-Wests.
In 1954 Lionel Sackville-West and his wife Jacobine had their first daughter.
Lionel’s great-aunt Vita, who had been barred from the succession because she
was female, wrote to congratulate them. When a second daughter was born she
wrote to say how lovely it was that the first had a playmate and hoped that
they weren’t too disappointed she wasn’t a boy. By the birth of a fifth
daughter, all she could find to say was “oh dear.”
Male primogeniture is a fruitful source of plot ideas for a
historical romance writer. The idea of the spirited but penniless daughter in
conflict with the new heir is a very powerful one and it’s one of my
favourites. And of course any change to succession laws now would make no
difference to what happened historically. (Though wouldn’t it be fun if all the
heirs in the female line came forward to make a claim on their inheritance!)
According to an account I read recently, opinion within the ranks of the
aristocracy seems split on whether or not it would be a good thing to change
the laws of inheritance. More than one duke has deemed it a good idea. Some have suggested that daughters should be
allowed to inherit only if there is no son. Others have rejected the idea
outright, warning that it would lead to the break up of landed estates. Some,
rather bravely in the current climate, have stuck to the traditional view that
all men (and women) are not equal, that women are not as good at running
estates and that “the first duty of a married woman is to have babies.” To
which I can only say – well, it’s a point of view.
Girls can multitask
Arguably the case of the traditionalists is weakened by the
fact that there are already titles and estates
with provision to descend down
the female line. There aren’t a huge number of them but they do exist. I came
across one the other day when I was visiting Wrest Park in Bedfordshire. Wrest
had been in the De Grey family for over 600 years. During that time there were
a number of female heirs in the succession including Jemima Campbell,
Marchioness Grey in the Georgian era, her daughter Amabel Yorke, Countess de
Grey, her granddaughter Anne Florence De Grey and her granddaughter Nan
Herbert, Baroness Lucas. The estate at Wrest passed from the family not because
of female inheritance but because like many others it was simply too huge and
expensive to maintain after the First World War.
In Forbidden I turned the male primogeniture plot around and
had a title and estate that could pass in the female line. The heroine returns
from the dead to dispossess the male heir. Perhaps it says something about me
and the heroines I enjoy writing that I really loved putting a strong heroine
into a situation where she was only doing what the men were habitually doing!
So what do you think? Do you enjoy stories where male
primogeniture leads to daughters losing out on inheriting a title and estate?
Does the inequality of it bother you in a historical context or does it lead to
good conflict in a story? And do you think that in the real world, daughters
should be allowed to inherit the dukedom?