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.)
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)
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!