Saturday, January 22, 2022

Notes from the Past: Illegitimacy

Jane's cousin, Eliza Hancock, was
likely the illegitimate
daughter of Warren Hastings.
Everybody knew.
Nobody said so.
In Samuel Richardson's Pamela, Mr. B has an illegitimate daughter. In my tribute, Mr. B Speaks!, I have Mr. B get annoyed when the issue of his natural daughter's illegitimacy is openly discussed.

This reaction is almost incomprehensible to members of the modern Westernized world. So much so that within the past few years, several books have been published about how awful it was that women in the '50s were forced by mean-spirited prejudice to give up their children for adoption.

I can't speak for children adopted during the '50s, but I can say that from Mr. B's perspective, his refusal to openly acknowledge his out-of-wedlock daughter as his daughter-by-blood is an attempt to protect--not punish--her.

The issue in the eighteenth century was not illegitimacy per se. It was status. The illegitimate sons and daughters of kings often rose to prominence and married quite well. And nobody much cared about the illegitimate sons and daughters of peasants, who were held to a far less rigorous set of social standards by their "betters" (this wasn't out of any belief in the intrinsic merit of sexual freedom, by the way: the upper-classes overlooked peasants having illegitimate children because they thought the peasants weren't human enough to know better; one of the biggest criticisms of Pamela at the time of its publication was that Richardson would actually, gasp gasp, give a servant girl such high-falutin' ideas as wanting to wait until after the wedding to have sex).

However, the known illegitimate sons and daughters of the merchant, gentry, and independent farming classes had a terrible time marrying respectably, the measure of social acceptance.

Emma and Harriet
Consider, for example, Jane Austen's Emma in which Emma is convinced that Harriet is the bastard daughter of a noble person (giving Harriet the right to marry "up") when it is far more likely that Harriet is the bastard daughter of someone far lower on the social scale. When Mr. Knightley tells Emma that Harriet would be lucky to marry a prosperous farmer like Mr. Robert Martin, he isn't being cruel; he is being honest about the world he, Emma, and Harriet live in.

American society was more relaxed on this topic almost from its inception, partly because American society was composed of the merchant, gentry, farming classes (their children didn't need to marry "up") and partly because the Protestantism of early America almost immediately produced a belief in innocent childhood (in both the moral and legal sense).

English society, however, was far less kind for far longer.

Consequently, one of the nicer things about Richardson's Mr. B is the lengths he goes to to protect his natural daughter: first, he keeps her rather than sending her off with her mother to a distant country: she is given into the guardianship of his sister and explained to society as his "ward"; later, she is placed in a decent boarding-house. Her mother, who has moved to Jamaica, marries there, allowing the fiction of legitimacy to continue. In time, Pamela adopts Mr. B's natural daughter (in a non-literal sense). The girl, Sally, does eventually marry well. Does she ever guess who her father really is? Probably. But so long as the fiction of her birth is maintained, she will succeed in the social milieu her father wants for her (which milieu is substantially better than the milieu she might have ended up in otherwise).

Speaking as a modern, human product of the Westernized world, I proclaim it a very good thing that parents and children no longer feel the need to go to such lengths to avoid Mr. B's fears. Speaking as a history buff, I believe historical personages (and characters) should be judged by the difficulties of their time rather than the understanding of our time. Consequently, I've never really "bought into" contemporary regency romances in which the mother reveals the truth of her natural-born child's birth to that child "out of love." My guess is the writers don't understand the internal and external burdens the natural-born child would then operate under within that society and time frame. For good and for ill, the social pressures of society--even when accompanied by absolutely no legal ramifications--are tremendously powerful.

Having written the above, I think that social pressures are accepted without constraint or feelings of betrayal when they are consistent between generations. It never occurs to Richardson (or Mr. B) to "fight the system." The issue with '50s babies is that the social pressures changed so rapidly--from less pressure to more pressure to considerably less pressure--within a single generation. The social pressures were never completely assimilated and therefore became objectionable in a way that much earlier generations would never have felt.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

The Romance of Cruise Ships: Dead Bodies

Despite enjoying The Love Boat, I don't really get the romance of cruise ships. I have no interest in taking a cruise myself--the first time someone told me, with great fondness, of meeting new people at "our dinner table," I thought, "Wow, that sounds like hell on floating water. Forced extroversion."

And no place to retreat. I love my tiny apartment with my cats. Unfortunately, cabins on cruise ships aren't meant as places of escape. 

And yet a lot of shows, from Quantum Leap to Murdoch Mysteries used the cruise ship to present closed environment problems. In sum, closed environment problems are the point of The Love Boat:

Okay, everybody in your life is here--solve something

Sure, occasionally people get off the boat and don't get back on or get on the wrong one (such as a new bride in a very funny Love Boat episode in which the honeymoon couple keeps encountering problems that keep them apart). And occasionally, people get picked up by helicopter from a ship. But generally speaking, the forced communal living lends itself to certain plots--

Particularly murder mysteries!

In Murder, She Wrote, Jessica investigates the death of a wife who was the mother of her niece's dead husband. (It's not as complicated as it sounds.)

In Diagnosis Murder, the entire Scooby-gang goes on a cruise where they encounter a black widow intent on murdering her latest husband. 

In Scarecrow & Mrs. King, Lee and Amanda go on a wedding cruise with a bunch of other spies in order to catch one of them.

In Columbo, a passenger kills a lounge singer who is blackmailing him. 

Hey, even X-Files has a cruise ship episode! 

In a way, the cruise ship mystery is a variation on the cozy mystery or manor house mystery--and makes a good deal more sense than romance in the same environment. 

Friday, January 14, 2022

Conversations with the Translator: Japanese News and Conspiracy Theories

Several manga that I read have characters who work for gossip rags. There's no stigma attached to this career beyond the problematic lifestyle of having to stalk people and compete for the best pics. (In American entertainment, paparazzi are always sleazebags; of course, Hollywood has its reasons for being anti-paparazzi.)

So does Japan have more gossip magazines than us free-wheeling Americans? Are their gossip magazines more like European/British paparazzi-fed productions? Or are they more like People?
Eugene: The tabloid newspaper culture is alive and well in metropolitan Japan. The population size and density of greater Tokyo, together with mass transportation, makes the newsstand economy very viable. The comparison to the British press is spot on. Maybe there's an inverse relationship between how reserved a population is on an individual basis and how much sensationalism it tolerates in the press.

However, the Japanese press does catch (deserved) criticism for moderating its fire when it comes to powerful and popular political figures and institutions on their side of the ideological aisle. In this respect, they're more like the FDR-through-JFK era press. As the Christian Science Monitor states:
The most secretive agency in Japan is not its intelligence organization. It is the Imperial Household Agency . . . . The agency tightly controls the flow of information about Japan's monarchy, not only to the public but to the rest of the government.
At the same time, the press doesn't pretend it's standing on some high ground of impartiality. As you've noticed, there's not the same stigma attached to such professions. The same goes for "gravure idols," who rarely have difficulty transitioning into more "respectable" occupations. The past president of the Democratic Party of Japan is a former model. (Just don't get caught in the company of yakuza, doing illegal drugs, cheating on your taxes, or taking illegal campaign contributions.)

Kate: I admit to being thrown when I found out the leader of World Order also went into politics! Americans are incredibly snide about Reagan and Sonny Bono's pasts as entertainers, but in Japan, moving between entertainment and civic duty almost seems to be expected!

The respect-for-institutions element might explain something I've noticed with the manga news reporting scenarios. It is not unusual for an article/set of pictures to not get published because it would offend somebody "higher up." The reporters and photographers complain, but they rarely (as in never) say stuff like, "Man, freedom of speech is under attack!" or "The editor is so corrupt; he lets anyone pay him off!" Sometimes they ask each other, "Hey, why did that particular set of pictures not run? Who's behind it?" And the hero may suffer personal, individual ethical qualms, especially if he knows who squelched the pictures.

But the event almost never turns into a theme about the culture at large. It's just this thing that happens in that industry. Oh, well.

Which made me wonder—how do the Japanese treat conspiracy theories? It seems to me that conspiracy theories rather depend on people getting riled up as a group when it comes to a particular unethical action, no matter how innocuous or unrelated to anything else. If the entire population has decided that an unethical action isn't really all that important CAN a conspiracy theory even get off the ground!?

Or maybe the whole population IS the conspiracy!
Eugene: That's a good way of putting it: being Japanese is the conspiracy. A whole philosophy evolved to rationalize it called Nihonjinron. Or as Leslie Pincus puts it, "One might say that Japanese travelers reappropriated Japan from Europe as an exoticized object." In other words, the biggest Orientalists are Orientals, just as the biggest Occidentalists are Occidentals.

Unless and until a fringe element goes nuts (and when a fringe element goes nuts, it really goes off-the-wall serial killer nuts), most Japanese treat the whole thing with a shrug and get on with their lives. Repeat after me: Shikata ga nai.

This attitude is not without historical validity. The Edo period could be described as a web of interlocking conspiracies by the powers that be. The Meiji Restoration was merely the new conspirators fighting against the old bunch. It wasn't a populist revolt. WWII is commonly cast in those terms too.

One creative reaction of the urban masses during the mid-19th century was to throw up their hands and go full hippie.

Even today, the concentration of power and money in Tokyo means that national politics is treated as a stage play performed for the news. It does make good material for fiction.

If The X-Files collided with Star Wars (while confining the setting to this solar system), and then giant robots showed up in battles spawned by insanely intricate political conflicts, you'd get Mobile Suit Gundam. Like Star Wars, Gundam has a supernatural element in the "Newtypes," genetically advanced humans with psychic abilities who are or aren't part of the conspiracy depending on what side you're on.

The Gundam universe created by Yoshiyuki Tomino is so complex that I lose track of who is conspiring with whom and why after about two episodes of any series. There are a minimum of three sides to every conflict and everybody has issues. My recourse is to just follow the protagonist and go where he's going for whatever reasons he comes up with.

Mobile Suit Gundam debuted in 1979 and the franchise is still going strong. Having spun off dozens of movies, novels, manga, and television series, and a huge model toy business, Gundam is deeply embedded in Japanese popular culture. A Japanese remake of Big Bang Theory would retool most of the Star Wars and Star Trek references to Gundam. (Netflix has the original series and several recent iterations.)
More to come...!

Monday, January 10, 2022

The Problem with Cinderella as a Character

The thing that gets me about so-called snowflakes and their "triggers" is not the way some of the noisier ones effectively (and quite honestly, abusively) hold other people hostage to their emotions and rationales and justifications--

It's how boring they are. 

And how boring their stories are.

Does anyone really want the story of a life to be, And I was completely and successfully reactive!?

I recently discovered that I don't care at all for the Cinderella character. 

I enjoy learning about the tale--the history of it--and I highly recommend this book: 

Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella by Paul Fleischman

But ultimately, Cinderella is a young woman who sits around and waits (patiently, kindly, nobly) for destiny. 

Cinder Edna is much better!

I learned how much I don't warm to the Cinderella myth while reading through the Bridgerton series again. The first, The Duke and I, is the first Julia Quinn I read. It is quite good and in many ways stands out from the rest. The second, The Viscount Who Loved Me, is hilarious (love the mallet of death!). 

The third, Benedict's story, An Offer from a Gentleman, is a Cinderella tale, and although I can acknowledge that the Cinderella, Sophie, inhabits a difficult position, I, ultimately, don't care. 

The problem is, Sophie is so entirely helpless. She doesn't write to distant relatives, like Jane Eyre. When she meets Benedict, she is more interested in having a nice evening out than, ya know, looking for a position, improving her lot in life, and gaining a benefactor, as Harriet Smith or Lucy Steele would do. Lucy Steele may have been a user but at least she looked after herself. Likewise, my version of Mrs. Clay knows exactly what she is up against and manages to play the game intelligently.  

For that matter, Sophie doesn't even decide to leave her negative circumstances of her own volition, as do numerous Georgette Heyer heroines. She doesn't take herself back to the Bridgerton house, ask for help, and stick relentlessly around, like the much younger Pamela, out of the firm and intelligent understanding that rushing off and taking whatever comes along next is a supremely stupid thing to do for any young woman in the 1800s. 

The idea that she is illegitimate and mistreated is used to excuse all this passivity and dumbness. The underlying implication is that trying to better one's life through networking--so one doesn't starve to death in a ditch--is tacky. Books contemporary to the time period addressed the ethics of ladder climbing. Yet even Jane Austen gave us Charlotte. 

Historically, Sophie's limited choices and mindset existed. But those choices become far more limited--and this is an important point--if Sophie wants to stay within a certain class. The truth is, young women in Sophie's situation did live fairly miserable lives. But they often did so because they lingered within the class structure that gave them grief. 

The others ended up with literary revolutionaries similar to Percy Shelley. And he died. Fanny Imlay, Mary Shelley's illegitimate half-sister, killed herself. In the meantime, Mary Shelley wrote a classic.

So unhappy women of that era and that class made do or broke cultural mores, or--and here is where things get truly unimaginable--they accepted a loss of status.

If Sophie willingly accepts that she'll have to spend the rest of her life as a maid, she could make that reality work for her. She could contact an agency. She could use contacts to track down work. She would rapidly learn that her stepmother has limited power and resources. 

But that's a lot of hard work and critical thinking, as Sara demonstrates in The Little Princess, and a change in mental framework. 

One of my favorite scenes from historical romances occurs in KJ Charles's A Gentleman's Position. Sir Richard falls in love with his valet. A good man, he considers any aristocrat who sleeps with his servant to be "taking advantage." So he well-meaningly offers David, his valet, the position of secretary. 

But David doesn't want to be Sir Richard's secretary. He wants Sir Richard to respect the job he does as a valet.  

It is a stunning request for true tolerance, not the fakey tolerance that states that people can only be respected after they have gained exactly the same jobs as powerful people (because the wealthy intelligentsia in America and throughout history has proved itself incapable of respecting anything it doesn't recognize). Instead, David's argument states that maybe the world would be a better place if the non-powerful jobs were actually respected in the first place

To be fair, David was born into the class that he defends. Sophie wasn't. 

She could make the switch. 

She doesn't. 

It's easy to feel pity for such a character. It's hard to like her. 

The above is not a dismissal of Julia Quinn's work, by the way. I think she does as well with the Cinderella trope as one can. But I recommend her other books first, especially, particularly, the delightful Romancing Mr. Bridgerton.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Epiphanies in Romance

A common resolution in romances is the Beauty & the Beast resolution--the hero is about to transform permanently into a beast or statue or snake or ghost or corpse, etc. etc. when the hero's lover declares, "I love you!" and the spell is broken.

Rather like The Lord of the Flies, it's the kind of resolution that deserves to be done once, but then--

But then, it gets a trifle easy, a resolution without real effort. One even begins to suspect that the lover is a bit daft for not catching on sooner. Hasn't the lover seen Beauty & the Beast?

A better resolution is when the lover has to prove love. I'm not advocating this as a solution to true-life relationships--having to jump through hoops on a daily basis would get rather tiresome. But from a writing point of view, it has the merit of "show don't tell." As Supernatural illustrates, continual sacrifice gets a little repetitive but it has the merit of being exciting! Battles against devils. Last-minute rescues. 


In Charlie Cochet's North Pole City series,  Donner's book tackles the "give all for my love" resolution the best. Donner is stabbed by the wicked Gunn when he attempts to protect his brother elves and Calder. Gunn's brother, Calder, uses his magic to transfer Donner's wound to himself. But then Gunn surprises the spectators--and the reader--by willingly drawing the wound he inflicted from Calder to himself. His motive, from the beginning, was to force his family back together. When his actions so radically backfire, he pays the price for his own crimes. 

That is clever! The declaration, "Oh, I love you so much" finds expression not only in action, but in action based in the story's rules.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Complaint: Lots of Tell, No Show

The most basic rule of fiction is "show, don't tell." 

It's a good rule. Like any rule, it can be broken, but most of the time, it is good to keep in mind, especially when it comes to character development. 

I often give setting a pass (though not always) because a quick tell--It was a deserted farmstead--is infinitely preferable to six pages of detailed description. Hey, let's move on to the characters!

But with character development, it is truly not a good idea to tell  readers what they should think about characters, rather than letting (1) the characters' behavior tell readers; (2) other characters in the story tell readers. 

I read a great deal of M/M romance, and a large percentage of it is very good. But lately, even from writers I've trusted, I've been encountering "homophobic" and "bigoted" and so on and so forth scattered amongst the pages without context. The writers seem to think that I'll be so overwhelmed by the terminology, I won't notice the lack of "show." 

I'm not. 

Especially since, in some cases, I have zero idea why a particular character was labeled in this way. There seems to be some secret code that indicates who the bad guy is and who the good guy is--not, ya know, actual behavior or actual dialog

It's lazy writing. 

It also makes my skin crawl since it is like being back in high school where violation of a clique's "code" results in nasty comments.

And, by the way, nasty comments due to clique violation is exactly what it is

Bullying is bullying, even when dressed up in critical theory and used by people spouting appropriate doctrine. And yes, I apply that rule-of-thumb to conservative religious people as much as I do to progressive folks. Calling people names is rude. When the point is not to be rude (which has its place) but to tell the reader how to think, it's really rude.

The use of such terms also runs the risk of becoming instantly irrelevant. I recently picked up a fantasy book that used terms like "gender," etc. in a milieu that was supposedly ancient. It wasn't just that I thought the terms were rather silly for the milieu, I was instantly struck by how dated they felt. These are current terms used in our culture, and I thought, "Yikes! This reads like a novel from fifty years ago." 

Writers who try to "keep up with the Joneses" may find themselves further behind the curve than if they just ignored the Joneses in the first place.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Learning from Fan Fiction: Tie the Relationship to the World

My Georgette Heyer fan fiction is based on a premise that shows up in other M/M historical romance--namely, that in this Regency England, M/M relationships are accepted. The very funny and Restoration comedy-like novels by J.A. Rock and Lisa Henry present this premise up-front:

In 1783, the Marriage Act Amendment was introduced in England to allow marriages between same-sex couples. This was done to strengthen the law of primogeniture and to encourage childless unions in younger sons and daughters of the peerage, as an excess of lesser heirs might prove burdensome to a thinly spread inheritance. 

In newly written stories that start with such a premise, the romances justify themselves. However, in fan fiction, the writer should try to capture the original feel or plot of the stories. 

Heyer wrote romances with Restoration comedy twists and turns. Her books are far less acerbic than Restoration comedies but just as reliant on disguises and witty villains and chase scenes and mistaken motivations and so on.

I discovered that simply replacing female characters with male resulted in exceptionally bland summaries (not that I minded, since summaries are always good practice...but bland). In order to make the fan fiction work, I needed to tie the new male characters to the world's rules. 

In my Regency England, men can marry each other but if they do, they must either designate an heir from among living relatives or arrange for a doyenne to produce an heir. Some estates still require heirs based on a bloodline but many estates do not. On the latter estates, an adopted heir has all the legal power and rights of an heir by blood. Male debutantes (referred to as marriage mart lads) still have more freedoms than their female counterparts but are more closely supervised than other men.

From The Foundling
With world rules in mind, when I married Gervase from The Quiet Gentleman off to Drew Morville with Martin as their heir, I used the circumstances to pay-off Martin's supposed motive in the possible murder attempt. In The Foundling, when I brought Gideon and Gilly together, I used the relationship to create consternation in Gilly's uncle, who doesn't want anyone to imagine that he is trying to promote his own son, Gideon, to the estate. And I gave Aaron from Arabella (which novel would have to be renamed) an additional motive in his attempt to bamboozle Mr. Beaumaris. He is not only exasperated at Mr. Beaumaris's coolly superior air but frustrated at being designated a "marriage mart lad" in the first place. 

It was an interesting lesson in pay-offs. If a story requires twists and turns, those twists and turns need to arise out of the world's expectations. If, for instance, social standing and parental approval are not part of a world's culture, nobody needs to run off to Gretna Green. Part A needs to be in place for Part B to work. 

It was also a good reminder that characters need something more than luuuv or despair to get by. Deciding that one's environment is entirely corrupt and worthless might be an interesting epiphany (it isn't really) but it is an epiphany that is entirely useless plot-wise. Characters need a stake in their world, a reason to change circumstances or themselves.