A Touch of Class

Class: John Cleese, Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett

This week I’m going back to my “Ask the Audience” post – and answer something that Tam asked:

Erastes: Do you think British men in romance novels in general (or m/m specifically) are accurately portrayed or do all of us in NA just fall for the accent and we either romanticise them (they are all James Bonds) or do we not give them enough credit (they are all Mr. Bean)? What about movies with British guys? You would know British men (not all of them obviously) better than I. (Although I’ve known a few in my life – but never in the Biblical sense, more’s the pity.)

Thanks, Tam!

Well, as usual, I’m going to address this from an historical perspective because I read very very few m/m contemporaries, and I think the only contemp m/m one I read was by a British writer (A Dangerous Man by Anne Brooke) .

In general, in m/m historicals, I’d say yes. A tentative yes, at least.  It’s going to be difficult here not to be nationalist, I think.  I feel that most British authors get British men pretty much on the button, and there are many many non-British authors that do so too, but there’s something I have found – and interestingly enough it’s something that happened quite recently with someone who I consider to be one of the best writers I know, even if she hasn’t published more than a couple of short stories as yet.

It must be difficult for some people, from a nation that doesn’t have the same concept of “class” as here.  I know that – for example – there is a class system of sorts in America but it’s more based on money.  Whereas an aristocrat is an aristocrat here, whether he’s got his arse hanging out of his trousers or whether he owns half of London.  The former, arriving at a ball, would still be afforded the same respect as the latter, even if they talked about him behind his back.

This authory friend of mine said to me “Would my character send a note to his staff to expect him? And what meal would be nearest to [the time he arrived home.]?”

What writers have to do, I think, is to try and get into the head of a character who has been raised to have things done for them, when they want them done.

Not only that, but more importantly, living with a staff who take pride in the family they serve, and the jobs they do.  If you’ve ever seen “Upstairs Downstairs”

then that’s a very good example (In Hudson, the butler) of a man who is just about at the top of his profession. A butler to a peer, and a member of parliament –  serving a titled family. He has huge pride in it.  He’s respectful and servile, but never in a creepy crawly way–in fact he stands up to the younger members of the family, notably the son of the family when he wants luncheon served in the dining room when he’s alone in the house, and wants a special bottle of claret served – Hudson refuses to do either.

The thing is, the servants – unless they were bad servants, like Jud and Prudie in Poldark (I never understood why he kept them on, I suppose it was difficult to get staff in Cornwall in the 1700’s) – would anticipate the family’s needs.  The character in my friend’s book wouldn’t think of sending a note to let him know he was arriving. That is unless it was going to either 1. inconvenience the staff hugely or 2. embarrass him in front of his peers by not letting the staff know.

Recall  Mr Rochester appearing with dozens of houseguests in Jane Eyre? He sent word to the housekeeper, telling her what to expect, sending the house into paroxysms of chaos – however – when he returned from some indeterminate time away (the first time he meets Jane), he just turns up entirely unexpected. Wet, with horse and dog – and it’s not a case that he expects that his needs will be catered to, and that his house is running exactly how he left it, it’s more than that. It’s an assumption. It’s where we get the reputation of arrogance, I suppose.

It wouldn’t matter what meal was nearest to his return, either–because, as mentioned above, the staff would take pride in dealing with his needs. He wouldn’t need to say “I need food” because his staff will assume that, if he’s been travelling, he will.  So the butler will say something like “I’ll have [xx] brought up straight away, and [meal] will be ready in an hour.”

So who do I think are note perfect English men in gay historical fiction? (I’m only referencing stories from non-British writers)

1. Jonathan and Alayne in Donald L Hardy’s Lover’s Knot come to mind first, probably because I re-read it quite recently.  I admit that I did beta this book as it was being written, but Donald already had the characters absolutely spot on.  Perhaps it’s because he’s an actor, but he knew these men backwards and forwards and their interaction with everyone is spot on.  Both are professional upper-middle class men. This–for anyone who gets lost in the divisions of the classes here–means that they are sons of wealthy families.  They are both from non-titled families, and while both men could probably live on their families assets and not work,  in general only titled sons were expected not to work. (The professions accepted by the upper classes: army, church, barrister law were not considered work.)

Therefore they are both professional men with much to lose.  The way they are prepared to remain silent and allow their friendship to be all they ever have is touching and realistic, thank goodness that events in the story propel things forward!  If you want to read a story where all classes interact effectively and realistically, tongue-tied at times, so much you want to kick them, then this is a perfect example.

2. Lee Rowan’s Lord Robert Scoville and Jack Darling in Gentleman’s Gentleman.

What’s fascinating in this relationship is that they’ve been eyeing each other up for ten years, Jack more so than Robert-but there are rules in place. And as Tracey Pennington reminded me today, it was the rules that kept things in place, the rules were important. If you didn’t have rules, what did an Englishman have? Anarchy! Green Carnations! Two years hard labour!

It takes ten whole years for them to get together and without the adventure they have, I wonder if they ever would!  What fascinates me with the story most is that not only are The Rules being obeyed almost right until they end up in bed, but how they have to work at the relationship afterwards to present what they are to the world, a man and his valet – while still being lovers. Difficult. And beautifully handled.

3. James Ellsworth and Daniel Courtney in Hayden Thorne’s “Icarus in Flight.”

This covers another – slightly different subset of class. Ellsworth is similar to Hardy’s characters, well-off and privileged. Courtney is of gentleman stock, but not at all financially sound. The gulf between them in English society is vast–it would be nothing at all in America, people would be scratching their heads as to what the problem was, but in this book it is realistically and incredibly well managed.

It’s interesting – now I’ve written all that out – that all three books are in the Victorian Era.  Part of that is that many eras are neglected–we get a lot of Regency, some Victorian and that’s about it – and part of it is probably because The Rules were so massively hugely important at this time.

Part of the problem with non-British writers, I think, is the eternal problem about trying to keep your protagonist likeable against having him realistic.  This touches on something that Alex Beecroft asked in that same Ask the Audience post where she wanted to know how one writes historical men with age-correct attitudes which still remain sympathetic to the readership.

Many writers make the mistake of having their upper-class chaps anachronistic in the way they treat their lessers.  They are over-familiar with staff, they sympathise with the Irish, or the slaves–they make all the same mistakes that the Mary-Sues in historical het romance, they are over familiar with servants and attentive to children.

It’s a fine line, but it can be done — Alex Beecroft herself talked about this the other day, referring to her sailor heroes – and she said (paraphrased) that “they did have Views about the big matters of the day, but they’ve got other things to worry about–sailing the ship being the main one.”

Whilst I would normally complain about writers using films as a basis for their research, when it comes to class distinctions you can’t do better than to watch GOOD English films and TV series’ depicting the upper classes.  Here’s my suggestions – I’ll be interested in any others.

Remains of the Day
The Shooting Party
Howard’s End (shows the entire gamut of class, very telling)
Maurice
Another Country
Gosford Park (VERY good for servant/master tradition and interaction)
Brideshead Revisted (go for the series, not the film)
Mrs Brown (You couldn’t GET a bigger class divide between Queen Victoria and her Gillie.)

So – not as much fun this week as buttons, GI Joes in uniforms etc, but I hope you found it interesting, and please feel free to ask me anything else – or recommend other books and films you think are relevant!

Author

Erastes is an author of gay historical fiction. Her novels cover many time periods and locations. She lives in Norfolk UK with demanding cats and never seems to have enough time to serve them.

31 comments

  • There’s a nice lot of generalisations here, but the nuances of the British class system are something you have to be brought up with to ‘get’ I think.

    Alexi is right in saying that there are elements of the British population who don’t pay homage to anything. They deny respect to anyone and demand it for themselves. These people can be found all across the classes and can be terrifying to deal with.

    Luckily there’s the other side of the coin – people who work hard and treat everyone with care and consideration. Again these people can be found in every class and are a delight.

    For instance Lady H-T who heard I had problems getting my son to a nearby town to a work placement and who volunteered to pick him up and drop him off morning and evening, adding an extra 10 miles to her trip, since ‘I’m going that way anyway, dear’. She didn’t NEED to do that, I wasn’t an employee, just an acquaintance, but she’s old school and takes noblesse oblige seriously.

    ‘Noblesse oblige’ has no snappy translation. What it means is that if one is in a position where one can help, one does. Or maybe that positions of privilege come with attendant responsibilities. It’s a fantastic device for the modern writer who wants to write about cross-class romances because such offers of help can easily be misinterpreted as charity or condescension.

  • Lee, the actress who felt it was so very annoying (she mentioned it later in more than one interview) that she should have to ditch her apple (and Helloooo! We have one of two varieties of apple available here), was Hilary Swank.

    Cheers 🙂

  • Very interesting post Erastes! I think you are right in saying people in North America don’t really really “get” classes. America was built on the idea that anyone can become anything if they work hard enough; people first came here to make a new start, everyone on equal footing, so to speak – which means not completely, but a little more than the class system on the old continent. But the fact that type of class distincctions, and the notion of aristocracy, is foreign to our reality is what makes books with British aristocrats as protagonists so fasnicating and exotic, in a way :).

  • Almost completely off the subject, but I thought I’d throw in to the ring that although the meritocracy could be considered as a replacement for the aristocracy in some places, the con-current “celebritocy” that seems to be global these days really gets up my nose – and it is particularly strong here when it comes to rugby players (the punch-ups, bad manners, drunken misbehaviour and general crassness that goes in on the pubs and clubs is something even I have heard about).

    OTOH, I can “forgive” a character behaving as the dictates of his time and position dictate in a story (especially as the author will be showing me a fully-rounded character that I emphasise with or loathe utterly, depending on authorial design), but plant-pot-pissings and “Don’t you know who I am?” queue jumpers (a magazine-format tv show presenter at the airport) don’t sit well. An actress from NA was here a few years ago and had ignored all the warnings about not bringing fruit into the country – and also ignored the “amnesty bin” available. When she was told that the apple she had with her meant a NZ$250 fine, she refused to pay (and got away with it). Yes, HS, your position and clout is far more important than any biosecurity hazards you and your self-importance present. No, I will never see a film with her in it again. /ranty hat

    In my fiction, I might want an HEA, but I do not expect it to be easy for the characters if the genre is “Hist” rather than “AU”.
    Cheers 🙂

    • oh, celebriti-itis. As far as I can tell, all it takes to be famous is a good publicist and a total lack of any substantial accomplishment. I wish those so-called “reality” shows would evaporate–some of the half-wits they’ve pushed into the spotlight would be better off airing their neuroses to a therapist, not the press.

      Who’s the twit who thought her personal diet was more important than NZ’s biosphere? I’m sorry–you can and should just EAT the damned thing. I’ve done that enough times waiting in line to cross to the US or back into Canada.

  • In Canada, even though we still have ties to Her Majesty 🙂 which most Canadians either ignore or consider ridiculous, we don’t understand the British class system. I would not have survived in historical times because of my attitude and my colour.

    I think the whole class thing is pretentious and laughable to those not familiar with it, but I guess it must work, otherwise why do most Brits pay homage to Lords and Ladies and royalty? Is it because most everyone in Britain wishes he or she were a member of the favoured ruling class and therefore could do no wrong even if s/he didn’t have two shillings (?) to rub together?

    Most North Americans are probably considered crass by the typical upper class Brit because we value hard work and money earned as a result of said hard work.

    I think each country has its idiosyncracies which citizens of other countries either don’t understand or ridicule, and what’s best about all this is that we can laugh about it and poke fun at each other’s customs. Maybe we should all be forced to live in other countries so that we can be more tolerant. What a hoot that would be.

    • Whoa, whoa, whoa. This is exactly what I was talking about earlier on in the comments, about people mixing up the way things were in Victorian times with the way they are now.

      Most British people do not pay homage to *anyone*, let alone titled gentry. Do non-British people really imagine that the lot of us go around tugging our forelocks and fawning or something? Most of us consider ‘lords and ladies’ a bunch of rather silly and inbred parasites and have a good laugh at their idiosyncrasies rather than wanting to be them. It’s certainly not the case that those guys can ‘do no wrong’. The same laws apply to them as anyone. People don’t get to buy their way out of trouble in the UK, and people do NOT get respect just because of their family background, although they might if they come from money (just like anywhere). *Some* British people have affection for the Queen and her immediate family, but that’s about as far as it goes.

      The idea that there’s still a real class system in place in the UK – that a working class girl like me can’t do just as well and be just as well respected and successful as someone whose family is titled, or would have any opportunities denied her because of her family background, is completely wrong. A doctor, business person or teacher in this country would never be looked down on from coming from a humble background, whereas I know in the US people who haven’t graduated from prestigious colleges or who have ‘trailer trash’ (what an awful term) beginnings are sometimes denied opportunities.

      What trappings of the system are still in place – such as making people a Knight of the Realm, or a Dame – are left in place because we think they’re nice traditions, not because all British people have a constitutional desire to bend at the knee. The UK is a modern democracy. We don’t live in Victorian times anymore.

      • I’m betting that in the upper echelons, the combination of old title + money would give a plum job to Sir Whatsis’ son before anyone without those born-to advantages. But that’s the sort of old-boy network that develops in almost any system, people with money keeping it under their control. The ‘nobility’ was all about that, really–money, land, and power.

        As to the Royal Family… I’m hoping that Canada eventually waives the requirement to swear fealty to the Queen as a requirement for citizenship. I’ll be eligible to apply for Canadian citizenship sometime this year (based on N days as a resident, not just entry date), but that has me on the fence. To Canada, sure; it’s only reasonable to ask for that in return for the privilege of voting, and Canada is considerably saner than the US; it even allows dual citizenship. But swearing loyalty to a person…? I tend to be loyal to my friends, but I’ve never even met Her Maj and I doubt she’d want to meet me.

        • Lee m’darling, I completely agree with you. As someone who was educated in the upper-class schools and purposely turned her back on all the back-scratching and influence peddling to make it on her own damn own, I can tell you the Old Boy’s network is alive and well.

          For those who don’t think this is so, just ask yourself how many toffs you meet in your own day to day life.

          So far in the (massive multinational) company I work for, I’ve met the sum total of ONE other public school boy. Construction not really being the purview of the aristocracy.

          Now if you ask me how many of my titled/influence-peddling friends are lawyers, bankers, MP’s aides, researchers for parliament, authors, doctors, Oxbridge Dons etc, I’d tell you “nearly the whole damn lot.”

          The class system may not be as overt as it previously was, but from my personal experience, you can get a long way on who you know and who you went to school with. And sometimes I think I’m a complete fool for NOT exploiting those contacts.

          xxx

          Chris.

  • I think that the English class system disintegrated fairly quickly in Australia after the first fleet arrived. Some people probably tried to preserve it, but in a country where survival depended upon cooperation, it ended up being that as long as you’d roll up your sleeves and help a fellow in need, you were good enough.

    That stands, even today in most parts of Australia, but more particularly in the ‘bush’ (countryside).

    Of course, we also now have our own class system based on money much as America does, but no one’s allowed to get too uppity lest he be ‘shot down’ by another less fortunate. (Tall poppy syndrome). It’s okay to have money, and live the good life, just as long as you remain ‘fair dinkum.’

    • I think that’s a good way to be – as you say, your country is based on damned hard work. I really like the attitude I encountered when I went out there.

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