Friday, January 18, 2013

Class and the Spymaster Fictive Universe

I was writing to excellent reader Ann today, talking about the blog post I did on how we write about Regency-era slums and got to thinking about how I deal with 'class' in the books.

Do I consciously write about social class in these books?
Yep.  I figger we all reveal our attitudes and beliefs unconsciously as we write ... so I might as well be aware I'm doing this and use it.

Take Lazarus.
Lazarus is motivated by resentment of the class that ruined his servant-girl mother and drove her into prostitution.  This is the class to which his father belongs.  The class Lazarus would enjoy if he'd been legitimate. 

Lazarus runs an empire of violence and theft, in part, because he figures his minions are entitled to take what they want.  The rich do.  Why shouldn't the poor?  He's self-educated and brilliant.  He can't help but see the inequity in the laws of England.  He ends up with great sympathy for the French Republican cause.

In his private life, his special ire is reserved for women of the privileged class who commit crimes that would land a servant girl in jail or send her to the gallows.  Again, class motivates his actions.

Adrian's life journey is shaped by a desire to become 'a gentleman'.  He walks, like Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid, on sharp knives every step of the way.  He finds himself, like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, unable to go back to what he was and yet unable to be comfortable with what he becomes. 

He measures his own success by his ability to pass as a member of the upper class. And yet, Adrian only passes for a gentleman; he never becomes one.  He watches, judges, and shrewdly assesses the rich and powerful . . . as an outsider.  He can never buy into their narrower view of the world.  He uses privilege, but doesn't believe in it.

Adrian originally admired the French Revolution, liking the leveling effect.  Then ... an outtake from Forbidden Rose has him watching a tumbril take a family with teenage girls to the guillotine.  We don't see the scene onstage, unfortunately, but that was a turning point of his life.  It outraged him.  He would never again be tempted by revolutionary violence.  Years later, he rejects Napoleon as an ambitious opportunist.  By that time, by 1799, Adrian is wholly committed to the British Service. 

But he never rejects France's social reforms.  Philosophically, Adrian is all for dismantling aristocratic privilege.  He doesn't act on this because social equality is never offered to him as a viable choice in the 1789 to 1818 timeframe. 
One reason Adrian gets along with Justine is they have no basic philosophical disagreement.

Doyle is more sympathetic to the idea of an aristocracy.

He plays at being a coachman or a laborer without assuming the interior life of one.  He's an aristocrat inside.  Born one.  Schooled and trained as one.

More than that, Doyle's a practical man rather than an idealist.  He believes a hierarchical society is inevitable, so he aims for a humane and workable system -- a fair, stable, well-run government with gradual change toward equality and social mobility.

The discussion Adrian and Doyle have at the beginning of Forbidden Rose is meant to show their different points of view.  (This is prior to Hawker's disillusionment with the bloody side of revolution in France.)

[Doyle and Adrian approach the orangerie at the chateau. It's savagely destroyed.]

    Hawker followed him, crunching glass into the gravel.  “The boys in that stinking little village waited years to do this.” 
   “Did they?”
    “They dreamed of it. They’d sit in those pig houses in the village with the shutters closed and the wind leaking in. They’d think about these fancy weeds up here, being coddled, all warm and happy behind glass. Down there,they were freezing in the dark. Up here, they were growing flowers.”
     “That’s fixed, then. No more flowers.”
     Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hawker stoop and pick up a rock, draw back and throw. Glass fell with a thin, silver discord. The heroic revolutionaries of Voisemont had missed one pane. Destruction was now complete.  

Justine is my most ideological character.  In 1818 she's going through a period of disillusion, as idealists will.  She's seen Napoleon fall.  She's seen Paris turn away from the Revolution and accept the Royalists back in power.  It'll be a few years before she gets her political fire back. 

Justine saw her degradation and loss not as a male/female issue -- not so much, 'men did this to me' --  as a class and power issue.  'The rich can get away with anything.' "In a just society these things would not happen.'  She responds to her hurt with a desire to right the wrongs of society.  She becomes a political person.

Justine's journey is one of rebuilding herself after absolute destruction.  Part of this is reclaiming her place as an aristocrat. Though she's despised aristocrats, ironically, it's a measure of her complete healing when she can say,

     “I will come to live with you in your great mansion and be a lady again. I will be a DeCabrillac, and face down the world if they make accusations. I will shake out your haughty mansion like an old rag and make it comfortable to live in.

She becomes something she has fought against, because Adrian needs this from her.  It's her gift to him.

Justine, too, is someone who doesn't buy into the class paradigm.  She may claim her name and position, but I see her taking her aristocratic space cynically.  She's gotten subtle in the Police Secrète.   Give her a few more years and she'll be the Grande Dame of the Reform Movement, infiltrating the camp of the enemy, still fighting the good fight.


  1. And here I thought you had that mountainside more or less to yourself. Now I find Adrian, Justine, Lazarus, the entire lovely lot, are residing in under your roof as well.

    You've given me much good stuff to ponder as I wrestle with my own characters. Thanks.

  2. Writers -- the only folks who are happy when they hear voices.

    Back when women were not supposed to do very much of anything lest they become conspicuous, somebody or another said it was better for a woman to dance scantily clad upon the stage than to write a book. Writing, you see, exposed the mind. Nude dancing only exposed the ... ahem ... this and that.

  3. Such a fascinating post. I do like the fact that your characters are so complex, both in what they believe and also in how those beliefs evolve and change. It makes a pleasant change from some of the rather simplistic depictions of class in that period which we often see!

    One of the aspects of this period which I find interesting is the disillusionment of those in England who believed fervently in the principles and ideals which led to the French Revolution, only to see the reality as power and greed corrupted them in practice.

  4. I try to give my characters different beliefs -- so much more interesting than some bland agreement. It defines them. Builds story.

    The disillusionment you speak of was in my mind when I wrote Adrian's reactions to the Revolution. He would have come to France carrying both Lazarus' pro-Revolutionary bias and his own innate resentment of the rich and powerful. I imagine the talks he and Doyle must have had, then, and later in their lives.

    Interesting, the effect that brutality of the French Revolution had on British politics. Put liberal change back for a couple decades is my own analysis.

  5. This lovely post enlightens readers to what's going on beneath the surface and what makes your characters real. Thanks, Jo, for creating such depth.

  6. I think everybody does this. Some folks make charts of what their characters like to eat or read or whatever ...

    I should probably do that. I keep having to look up folk's eye color

  7. That's a very good discussion about your characters' motivations and about class. Yet everyone involved was also highly affected by the great Loss of the American Colonies... and its grand experiment of "no kings, etc." yet there must be something in someone who was born to the manor rather than pretending (like Adrian). Many at all levels of social class believed that God wanted Lord so and so to be an aristocrat and "higher" than his groom or the guy in the field doing the work. anyways, as always I enjoy reading about your characters. they are so fascinating.

  8. It's interesting to speculate on this.

    It seems to me the philosophical impact of the American Revolution was fairly minor in Britain. The Dutch Republic, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and Venetian Republic -- not to mention the classical Romans -- had demonstrated beyond doubt that various forms of republic worked just fine. Nothing novel about the concept.

    And the colonies were not overthrowing ancient custom and aristocratic privilege on their soil. The inequities in American social life remained entirely unchanged thank you very much.

    All they did was kick out the Royal governors and stop paying taxes.

    The British were peeved by the economic consequences of separation. They'd lost a valuable property. But they didn't have to re-examine the ideological structure of their society because America was making no changes in their own social order.

    And American Independence was old news. Doyle would have been eleven in 1776. Justine and Adrian, not yet born. For them, it's the war the last generation fought.

  9. Great post. A seditious bunch, your characters. I love them.

    I have always found it a bit annoying when writers talk as if Englishmen were all patriotically united in the fight against the tyranny of the Corsican monster, when in reality a great many of them thought the Revolution was a good idea and that Napoleon was the hero, not Wellington.

    However, I think you are right when you say that the Terror and the fear of revolution coming to England set back the cause of reform a few decades—quite a few. You end up with years of the paranoia of Liverpool and Sidmouth, stomping down on the slightest protest.

    The world is always a mixed place, like the people who inhabit it.

  10. Anonymous2:33 PM

    That was a very insightful post, Jo. I absolutely agree that the French Revolution had a negative impact on social reforms in England. There was so much fear that it could happen at home, particularly with the food riots, they clamped down hard.

  11. Hi Lil --

    In 1802, during the Peace of Amiens, Napoleon was tremendously popular in England. He was seen as the man who had stopped the endless war. They named taverns after him and made Toby mugs.

    History was written by the aristocrats. We see their point of view.

    But it seems to me the thoughtful and literate among the lower and middle classes might have been attracted by the notion of being able to vote, universal free education, advancement in the army and government by merit instead of noble blood, equality under the law . . .

  12. Hi Ella --

    France hit it unlucky in the 'leader jackpot' during the Revolution. (America, on the other hand, hit it lucky all across the board.

    A lot of the bloodshed in France was a hysterical reaction to being attacked by every army in Europe. If Austria, etc., had stayed home and tended to their knitting France would probably have emerged as a constitutional monarchy and Napoleon would never have had his chance to rewrite the map of Europe.

  13. Christine9:01 PM

    I love the excerpt from TFR you posted with Adrian and Doyle. It always struck me how perfectly you managed to sum them both up without a lengthy and boring "exposition"- Adrian *was* one of those boys (the urban English version anyway) and Doyle is the wry pragmatist.

    Lazarus is probably one of my favorite supporting characters ever- and I write this knowing exactly what a monster he can be, and never ever wanting or expecting him to be the hero of one of your novels! He's not a romantic hero, he's just a fascinatingly complex character (who scares me and interests me at the same time)and whom I always hope will show up again. His voice is so clear to me- I always hear him as the actor Mark Sheppard (Badger for Firefly fans)especially when addressing Sebastian as "Captain". I enjoyed the peek into his whole kingdom with the padding ken and its hierarchy but had never considered his political leanings before- its adding a whole new layer to him.

    I always liked the idea of Adrian keeping one toe in his old world and the little glimpses of it-he's Black John's son's godfather, and as Sebastian notes- no one ever picks Adrian's pocket even in the seediest sections.

  14. I'm quite proud of Lazarus. I hesitate to return to him for fear I might not be able to write him well enough the second time. *wry grimace*

    I like to think that scene with the orangerie shows where Adrian comes from ... and what he would have become if he hadn't been handed over to Doyle.

  15. Love that scene in the orangerie. Brilliant writing and character development, and touches something inside everyone, both Adrian's thoughts AND Maggie's about how she loved the place.

  16. Thank you so much. Y'know how there are scenes that move the story action onward ... and then there are those dread, static, often-boring 'character development scenes?

    That's a character development scene. As you point out, I was trying to use the different thoughts about the orangerie to show the differences between the characters. I'm delighted to think it worked a bit.