Posted April 17, 2008
I once heard a reader dismiss a particular romance novel – and, in fact, the author’s entire writing career – because she felt the writer had no grasp of history. Her complaint? In the book, a character used a zipper several weeks before it was invented in real life. Now, I’m aware that historical errors can be very distracting, but it’s also possible to pay too much attention to the nicities of historical detail at the expense of the actual story. More important, and thus more damaging when done wrong, is historical anachronism pertaining to character.
The character of the bold, adventurous heroine has a long tradition in historical romance. When done right, it can be immensely satisfying. When done carelessly, it is glaringly awful, and usually that comes down to different expressions of the same problem: modern writers who assign modern attitudes, desires and abilities to historical heroines. This strategy rarely works because, let’s face it, things were different then. The times, they have a’ changed.
A major changes between then and now is how society perceives and deals with issues of class. Class is a tricky concept for many modern romance writers, particularly North Americans. Which is not to say we don’t have class issues here – of course we do. But they tend to be based on economic or political status, rather than the notion of inherited right. We no longer believe that a drunken loser of an earl who gambles away his estate and shoots himself in consequence is somehow intrinsically better than the mill owner who takes over the estate, pays off its debts and restores it and its tenants to health. But for a long time, society did believe it.
One writer who really understands that belief and knows how to write about it is Lisa Kleypas. Although she has recently branched out into the contemporary field, most of her twenty-odd novels are historicals. Reading them, one gets a real sense of how deep the class divisions went, and how impossibly high a wall they were to climb. So any character who challenges them must be extraordinary in a manner consistent with the class in which she lives. It’s that last bit that throws some writers, but Kleypas’ touch is deft and assured.
Lisa Kleypas sold her first book at 21, having just completed a degree in political science at Wellesley College. Ever since, she has made her living as a novelist. She is also – and this is always made much of by the media – a former beauty pageant contestant (Miss Massachusetts). Her novels have earned her all kinds of awards and nominations within the field, including the RITA. In addition, they have a fairly regular place on the NYT Bestseller lists. Her style is sensual in the best meaning of the word: through sensory details, it subsumes a reader in time and place.
Dreaming of You is a great example of Kleypas’ thorough understanding of class distinctions. First of all, neither of its principals are of rank. The heroine, Sara, is a gentlewoman from a modest country family, who lives a quiet rural life. Her only distinction is that she writes: in fact, she has published two novels. Though slightly unusual, such a course was unexceptional for her time. The hero, on the other hand, is truly a self-made man. Raised in the gutter, he pulled himself out of poverty by gambling, and now runs the city’s most popular gaming club. He has no family name, a ferocious work ethic, and more money than most people could imagine. Frankly, two such individuals should never catch sight of one another, let alone fall in love.
But they do meet, under circumstances that flow naturally from who of who and what they are. And they intrigue each other. Sara has never met anyone with Derek’s drive; Derek has never encountered anyone with Sara’s intellectual curiosity. They fall in love despite the differences in their stations and class – in fact, much of emotional tension of the novel comes from their ability to understand just how wide the gulf between them is, and what the consequences might be should they proceed.
But of course they do proceed, and eventually marry, and the ending is all the more satisfying because the reader knows exactly how big a deal it is, and how much they’ve overcome to get there. Dreaming of You is almost fifteen years old now, and its enduring popularity is a testament to Kleypas’ skill. ‘Class’, after all, means both ‘a system of ranks and divisions’ and ‘of excellent quality, showing elegance and style’. Kleypas gets the first, and has the second.
Chris Szego would love to have class, but will settle for ‘stain-free’.