I make a point of reading everyday, and sometimes on weekends when I don’t want to read a book I associate with bus travel and coffee in McDonalds, I pick up odd volumes at home – Labyrinth manga, histories of King John and bound volumes of Windsor Magazine. As a result of which I am left cold by internal inconsistencies, fascinated and frustrated by introductions to books that keep sinking down in the pile of Books to Read and calling friends and saying “Oh. My. Word!”
Oh. My. Word.
This last is because the story I read this weekend was just the sort of story that Anne Shirley and Katy Carr and The Story Girl and Jo March and their friends-and-relations read and wrote and swooned over and learned through the trials of life not to write anymore. Exactly.
Problems with Names
It was called “Sword before Tongue” (I swear) and was published in The Windsor Magazine in the second half of 1910 (I don’t have the book by me to check the date) and was about the fair but impetuous and proud Rosamund (of course) Basset (ward of the King) and … a hero whose name evidently paled beside Rosamund Basset, but was ward of his wealthy and not entirely pleasant uncle. I’m calling him Nigel because he needs a name. I have nothing against Nigels. I know some very nice ones. But awkward young knights of Edwardian provenance should be called Nigel, no?
There were arranged/bought marriages, snide serving women, cruel laughter, proud disdain, runnings away, thieving gypsies, young knights, daring rescues, concealed identies, a surprising number of barely-concealed-bosoms, pride being humbled, eventual mutual warming of hearts and the promise of a happy ending.
I enjoyed it in the way I enjoy similarly melodramatic (even self-consciously so) books that make me want to curl up with friends and read aloud, stopping at intervals to shriek with laughter into the nearest cushion. This is the best way to enjoy, for example, The Scarlet Pimpernel or Georgette Heyer, and the occasional section of a DWJ novel.
“Sword before Tongue” (I may never forget that title) troubled me because the young knight in question, awkward and ineffectual and six months away from being independent, steals his uncle’s money and runs away to go to the wars and is rewarded with the woman who disdained him being humiliated and tamed and falling in love with him, while Rosamund who will always be under someone’s thumb but is marvellously proud and majestic is repeatedly called a shrew, attacked, humbled, assaulted, terrified, humiliated, kept in the dark and gentled and tamed prior to falling in love with her rescuer.
It rang wrong for at least three reasons.
I had high hopes for Rosamund. She had a strong wild character and I liked her a lot. Yes, she was arrogant and abrupt and abrasive but those are traits that can be grown and developed into virtues (see P&P and Deep Secret). Characters like her may stumble and learn, or suffer and be scarred, but they aren’t punished by the author. I read a lot, but my reading has trained me not to expect that.
Rosamund’s strength of character wasn’t entirely admirable and she certainly had flaws, but her strength was enjoyable and I objected to it being entirely removed. I’m fine with strong characters getting into trouble and learning to modulate – I love Lyra’s rough-and-tumble, take-no-prisoners, get-up-fighting attitude, but I find it very easy to imagine her growing up to be a strong villain if she doesn’t learn some rational thought and responsibility. Or consider Anne Shirley’s headstrong dramatising: it creates problems and she learns to temper it but not to repress it. Jo and Katy Carr are a bit different – they are a little more cowed by their experiences (no more splendidly dangerous games of Old Man River or Kikeri for Katy), but they still remain independent and interesting people (and though I missed the old Katy, I wanted to grow up to be the new one). Or Eilonwy, daughter of Angharad – she’s still herself by the end of her story: wiser and older but still twisting language and fighting for what she thinks is right. Rosamund is gutted and replaced with someone maleable and sweet and fainting, stripped of everything that belonged to her and even dressed in Nigel’s surcoat.
Then Nigel rescues Rosamund even though he doesn’t like her. I don’t mean ‘thinks he doesn’t like her’: he doesn’t fall in love with the proud, strong person; she has to be completely changed (humbled and weak and chastened) for him to like her. This rescue might at least be construed as a noble – or at least minimum – standard to which to attain, but he spends so much time enjoying her discomfiture and the sight of her tied up, half-dressed, disheveled and terrified that I got really mad at him and would have thrown the book if it hadn’t been old and heavy and… hmm, worth more than $40 even if it hadn’t had covers (just found that out). It wasn’t the characters or the setting that bothered me – I can handle knights and maidens and rescues and misunderstandings just fine. I was angry at the author.
Three: Not Anachronistic
People still write these stories. Not in the sense of vaguely arthurian/medieval romances because most of the ones I read have gone a long way to redressing the balance, even the ones with plenty of misunderstandings and rescues and potentially compromising situations (and I do like some Heyer in this respect). But it happens in modern mainstream novels, and even more in movies and tv series where bright, smart characters (usually women) are (if more subtly) humbled and rescued and ‘rewarded’ with foolish, selfish, bumbling characters (usually men) who don’t change and don’t learn. She is punished for her weaknesses; he is rewarded for his; neither gets the chance to grow.
Not my fantasy!
I referred above to Anne of Green Gables (eponymous) and Jo March (of Little Women) and Katy Carr (What Katy Did), all of whom predate “Sword before Tongue” (it’s an awful title) in date of publication, if not in setting. I have resented the emphasis in those books on not writing fantasies and romances (I’m using that for the old genre, not the new one) and writing about “the real world”. But if this is a (slightly later) representation of what they were reading and writing then I retract my earlier statements and say their mentors were forsightful, enlightened individuals!
It is interesting to note that the author’s own life appears to have echoed the pattern of those books, according to the little I have read. His name was Warwick Deeping, a bestselling author of the early twentieth century, who wrote historical novels primarily concerned (according to one article) with maintaining the status quo against uncertainty and anarchy (that makes sense in relation to this story) until “the reality of medical service in the trenches woke him from the “dreams” of his pre-war historical fictions and enabled him “to dip his pen in life and extract reality”” (from Mary Grover’s entry in the Literary Encyclopedia), which I’m quoting wholesale because it sounds nasty. A lot of that entry explains this story, including the violence and sensuality.
Here is his Wikipedia entry.
And, lest I draw the ire of the Warwick Deeping Appreciation Society, I will not judge his full body of work on one short story published 15 years and one world war before his most famous work. I am interested to read more and see how his writing changed.
Redressing the Balance
On the upside, I am now working my frustrations out in a short story, melodramatically (and selfconsciously so) titled “The Goblin Blade”, and laughing a lot as I do so.