Villain to Hero?

by Mary Jo

Today's topic was inspired by a question from Word Wench reader Kay Spears, who 51Vng9sTxILasks:

One of my allllll time favorite romances is/was Mary Jo Putney's The Rake and the Reformer aka The Rake.  I love Reginald Davenport…he turned out to be quite a hero. My question for all wenches: How do you take a drunk/ licentious/ corrupt/ not-hero-material man and redeem him? And, when you're writing this character, do you recognize him as hero material? Or, does it come as a surprise when readers start wanting him as a hero?

MJP:  I immediately grabbed this topic for a blog, but it's such a great question that other Wenches may pick it up for blogs of their own. For asking this question, Kay Spears will get a book from me. 

Reggie Davenport made his debut in my very first Signet Regency, The Diabolical Baron. Since it was my first book, I was feeling my way and just wanted an antagonist for my hero, Richard, a Waterloo veteran who has learned that he's heir to the Wargrave earldom, a responsibility he isn't sure he wants.  Reggie is his cousin who has long thought that he was the heir. 

 

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The Return of The Rake

Cat 243 Doverby Mary Jo

A frequent interview question for authors is to name our favorite among the books we’ve written.  I hate that question.  Sophy’s Choice! 

I usually reply that I love all my books and characters, or I couldn’t write about them.  This is entirely true. 

 

Rake--small Kensington coverBut if pressed, I will admit that the book that is closest to my heart is The Rake.  It’s a long book that was written in a mere four months (very fast for me), and which was created out of the visceral experience of alcoholism. 

Not my own—I come from generations of Yankee teetotalers.  Two glasses of wine a week is wild times for me.  But I knew an alcoholic.  (Doesn’t everyone?)  I observed the slippery slope as a social drinker comes to crave alcohol with increasing urgency until self-control crumbles and life becomes an ever more frightening downward spiral.

I also observed the difficulties of recovery, of attempts to moderate.  The temporary successes, the backsliding, and the growing desperation until the shattering of the soul that comes with hitting rock bottom.  And then the long, painful, and uncertain struggle toward recovery.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the source material of The Rake.  The book itself grew from my very first Signet Regency.  In The Diabolical Baron, the hero is a Diabolical Baron--Originalreserved former army captain who is unsure if he wants to take on the vast responsibilities of the earldom he finds himself heir to. 

One of the reasons Richard decides to declare his identity and take on his heritage is his obnoxious cousin, Reginald Davenport, the heir presumptive to the earldom.  Reggie is a rude, ill-behaved jerk who has been hanging out on the town for years, waiting for his uncle to die so Reggie can inherit.

Reggie was invented as a foil for the noble, wounded, and conflicted Richard (clearly this hero archetype was in my mind right from the beginning <g>), but as characters do, he started to develop dimension.  At the end, he shows surprising grace in defeat. 

My critique partners loved Reggie and wanted to see more of him, but—well, he was an obnoxious jerk.  Then I realized that all his bad behavior came when he was drunk—which was more or less all the time. 

Inspiration struck. Regencies were full of hard drinking, womanizing rakes who never Dangerous to Knowsuffered any consequences.  I figured it was time someone wrote a book about consequences.  Having had the opportunity to observe the whole cycle of alcoholism and recovery close up, I had a pretty decent grasp of the subject—and off I went, illustrating that fools do indeed rush in where angels fear to tread. <G> 

Reggie's story begins his cousin gives him the estate where Reggie had been born—and which should have been Reggie’s if not for his uncle’s nasty machinations. Richard basically says, “Here’s an estate with a good income, sink or swim, you’ll get nothing more from me, and you might want to keep the steward, he’s very good.”

Rake and Reformer
Except that the steward is a female working under her initials—and quite the surprise for Reggie when he returns to Strickland!  Alys Weston, known as Lady Alys for her imperious ways, had run away from her life and reinvented herself as a steward with three foster children and a fluffy imperious cat named Attila.  (The cat was really Rocky, the feline belonging to a schoolteacher neighbor of mine.  I used to cat sit him when she was out of town.  Definitely imperious.) 

Alys is a strong character in her own right, with her own pains and sorrows and hidden dreams.  She shares Reggie’s subversive sense of humor, so there's a fair amount of banter.  This is also the most agricultural book I've ever written, showing something of what it was like to run an estate. (Yes, I grew up on a farm.)

But ultimately, it’s Reggie’s book. Here's a very brief excerpt, when Alys checks up on him after he's had a very bad episode with his drinking:

(Alys) took the prepared tray and entered the library.  Reggie was a lean, silent shape slouched in his favorite chair, half turned away from her.  The room too shadowed to see his face, but his clothing was neat.  With luck, he had not availed himself of the liquor cabinet. 

She set the tray on a table to the left of the door and said quietly.  “Are you still among the living?” 

His head turned in her direction.  After a lengthy silence, he said in a slow, rusty voice, “I've read of penguins that jump around on an ice floe, trying to decide if there are sharks in the water.  Eventually they push one of their number into the sea.  If the sacrifice isn't eaten, they all dive in.  You, I assume, are the sacrificial penguin.”

She had to smile.  Obviously there was some life in the old boy left.  “I’ve have been called many things in my life, but never a sacrificial penguin.  How did you know there was a committee outside trying to decide what to do about you?”
 

“Occasionally the door would open, very quietly, then close again.”
 

“After they had determined that the shark was still lurking here.”  Without asking if he wanted any, she poured two cups of tea, with heavy dollops of milk and sugar in Reggie's cup, then went and put it in his hand.  Close up, he looked dreadful, with haunted eyes and a gray tinge to his dark skin. 

As he stared at the dainty cup, she said helpfully, “It's called tea.  People drink it.  It's the British cure for whatever ails you.”

The first version of Reggie and Alys’s story was a SuperRegency called The Rake and the Reformer. and it caused a modest sensation when it was published.  I received some remarkable letters and the book won a RITA, among other awards.  On one occasion, a woman walked up to me at a conference, said the name of the book, then burst into tears.  (I led her to the nearest sofa, patted her hand, and we talked.)

The Rake--originalLater NAL gave me the opportunity to revise my early Regencies into historical romances, and The Rake and the Reformer was transformed into The Rake.  People ask how much I added to the original story.  The answer?  I didn’t add anything.  Instead, I cut about 4000 words, making the story tighter and just a little bit sexier.  (I’d been threatened with actual bodily harm if I changed the story too much. <g>)

The story sold lots more copies as a historical romance, but eventually went out of print, as books do.  So I was pleased when Kensington chose to buy the rights to The Rake so they could reissue it again.  The official release date is April 27th, so it may already be showing up in stores. 

Needless to say, I’m delighted that a book so close to my heart is widely available again.  (Much as I love e-books, a lot more people still buy print.) 

IMG_0873As an amusing sidelight, a couple of years ago the Mayhem Consultant adopted a young tom cat to replace his much mourned Cleocatra.  Since the MC loves The Rake, he named the cat Reggie. BIG mistake—the Reg turned out to be a charming teenage thug who harassed my older cats.  ("Reggie makes other cats edgy!”)  In fact, a young feline troublemaker.  Maybe if we’d named him Cedric….

In honor of the reissue of this book of my heart, I’ll give away one copy of the very Rake--darker blueoriginal version, The Rake and the Reformer, to someone who leaves a comment between now and midnight Saturday. 

I almost hesitate to ask you about your experiences with addiction—it is SO not a fun topic.  But if there’s anything you’d like to share, I have hugs to spare.

Mary Jo