desperate characters

(19 march 2009)

every spring/summer, i become mildly obsessed with historical romances. something about the rising temperatures just sends me running to the pile of petticoat paperbacks.

but i think it imperative we establish a definition.

first and foremost, this is not chick lit.

chick lit involves a young woman living in new york on a salary of approximately $15,000 per year, working as a junior something-or-other at (a) a publishing house or (b) an advertising agency alongside an unrealistically attractive (i) boss, (ii) co-worker or (iii) client whom she initially finds repulsive, but with whom she will eventually fall in love and have mad, passionate sex and a wedding after her (1) burdensome financial debt, (2) past history with her own and/or a sibling’s eating disorder, (3) disastrously ended affair with a richer, older man or (4) success in a theatrical adaptation of a jane austen novel make him fall in love with her. that is chick lit.

we’re talking historical fiction. by which i also do not mean harlequin romance, but rather the mighty gone with the wind and vanity fair, the epically sexy forever amber, and their less literary sisters from contemporary writers like karleen koen, et al.

like any type of literature, historical fiction has its conventions. the story will require no less than 500 pages. sex will take place in an unplowed field at least once. ribbons, fans, and carriages will abound. there will be dancing and there will be wigs.

but then that just sounds like chick lit in full make-up and fancy dress. and this is not chick lit.

the difference is a matter of character. in chick lit, the protagonists are a product of our times. they are whiny, cloying messes with drinking problems, dysfunctional relationships and credit card debt. i know these people. we don’t hang out.

historical fiction is altogether different. the heroines are peasants or country girls or irish or orphaned. naïve sprites or cunning bitches (it depends) who somehow wind up at the center of everything, be that versailles, restoration london, or the crumbling old south.

unlike bridget jones– who can screw up every interview and still get a job in tv– there is no room for error here. these women have to fight for what they get, have to claw their way through the intricacies of court, through the overthrow of governments, through southern manners and sherman’s army, to survive.

these are girls with real problems. and yes, it’s ridiculous. yes, it’s overblown. yes, there are sex scenes that should probably be read aloud in high school english classes to educate kids on things not to say while having sex and how not to write but, ultimately, this is not about sex or writing. it’s about characters.

there is something more honest here, in these stories of women who have to work to get to where they are. of women who actually want to wind up somewhere different from where they began. i say this as a woman who is often restless and wants to go somewhere. who would like to believe that marriage is more than a means to an end and that there is more to life than weddings and husbands, which is where chick lit usually bids us adieu.

historical fiction is peopled with mistresses, wives and mothers who are characterized not by the men they are with but what they are doing themselves. they are far from helpless. they are often on the run.

it is a genre characterized by a swiftness that belies the fact its members are usually over a thousand pages long.

ambition is seldom a motivation in chick lit. bridget left her job because she slept with her boss. becky bloomwood deals with her problems only after the fact that she has the debt of a developing nation has been exposed to the whole wide world. in chick lit, women wait. they shop. they keep diaries. they are content to bide their time.

in historical fiction, our girl will claw the face of anyone who stands in her way. becky sharpe would’ve. amber st. clare did. scarlett o’hara shot him dead.

and i think that is why i return to these books again and again, silly as they may oftimes seem. because, beyond the heaving bosoms and hiked petticoats, there is extraordinary substance here. hunger and violence, dirt and blood.

these are not the delicate, helpless girls chick lit would have us believe we should be. they are fierce. they are tough. they are women.

4 thoughts on “desperate characters

  1. a rousing indeed! i, too, succumb to siren call of the historical romance… and now I know why 😉

    (first time commenter, long time reader)

  2. The Becky Sharpes of the world are also great because the heroines are not the inverse of the chick lit heroine, the comic book staple “kickass girl,” or as I like to call them, pardon le Francaise, “Batmen with Boobs.” By which I mean, the Lara Crofts of the world, sexy but sexless avenging angels who make nerd boys drool by being the world’s most efficient explosion and breast delivery devices.

    • wow. that comment was so rich, i don’t know where to begin. when has anyone ever made better use of the french language? i do love that we are meant to love becky sharpe though she is clearly unlovable. and somehow that quality makes these characters feel more alive and more like the middle ground.

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