Tuesday Thoughts– The perfect Austen hero

Today is my fourteenth wedding anniversary. My husband and I are soon coming up on a time when we have been married longer than we were ever single. We got married at 19. We were utter babies and very few dollars to our name. However, we had a lot of love and commitment and I’m still convinced nothing would have been easier if we had waited. 

Both of us were forced to grow up quick. I was the oldest of four kids and the child of a single mother. We lived in utter poverty and would have had nothing without public assistance, churches, and the unfailing aid of friends. My mother cleaned houses and after awhile there were a few businesses and doctor’s offices she cleaned in the evenings. I often made dinners, did homework help, baths, and bedtime for my siblings. I had known instability and insecurity in life. I had seen real ugliness. And I knew real happiness when it was in front of me.

My husband’s mother died when he was eight years old. His grieving father focused on work to cope. My sister in law is sixteen years older than my husband and had just started a family of her own. My husband’s aunts lived far away. Eventually, my father in law remarried for a few years. Before that marriage and again after it, my husband was often alone and raising himself. I can’t say I knew any other sixteen year old boys who could cook their own dinner.

From our age, you would probably assume we were high school sweethearts, but we weren’t. We did go to the same high school. Well, I moved to it when I was fifteen. He was in band and I was in chorus, so we were in the same “orbit” but didn’t have any classes together that first year. The next year, I have one vague memory of him as the band and chorus classes had a group trip to Universal Studios in Florida.

At the end of that year, however, there was an event which I clearly recall. There was a banquet for the fine arts classes at the end of term. The graduating seniors gave what they called superlatives to the junior class. Just like one would find in a yearbook, there were things like “Most likely to…” My husband won an award for “most likely to quit the football team to rejoin the band.” In a world where it seemed everyone would rather be the jock than the nerd, my interest was piqued. However, I was in my Willoughby Phase and summer was starting. It was just something that interested me, nothing that I thought about romantically.

When school started again, my Willoughby had proved himself which would have usually made me ripe for some rebound interest. Instead, my personal life came to an absolute head as my brother’s drug addiction (he was only fifteen) came crashing down around us. I remember my senior year of high school as one in which I tried so hard to keep up the appearance that everything was fine and under control while it felt like my world was ending. I took two AP level classes that year–which was a lot for my school. We only offered five (one was available junior year only) and it was strongly discouraged to take more than one. There were times when I had been up all night as my brother raged in the house and I had to walk to the local 7-11 to get the police because it was faster than calling 911. There was even a time when I couldn’t take it anymore and walked several miles to my mom’s friend’s house. Lizzy Bennet’s three miles in muddy petticoats has nothing on me in high heel boots in below freezing weather with a thin coat and it being after midnight. I finished the school year by staying at that friend’s house. It was arranged for me to visit family in Florida for the summer. I couldn’t wait to start college in the fall. I just wanted to start my adult life. Romance was the last thing on my mind.

Throughout the year, I started to notice the man who became my husband seemed interested in me. However, he hardly ever spoke to me. Oh, I have a few memories. There was the time he told me that he (and a friend!! Mustn’t forget the wingman who was at his side) voted me prettiest eyes and smile for the yearbook. He ran away before I could do so much as gape. There was the time he donated blood for part of our AP Government class. He’s deathly afraid of needles. By the end of the day, as most of us music nerds hung out in the band room after school, he was looking pretty pale. I offered him my leftover lunch which seemed to perk him up. Oh, there was the hug he asked for on Senior Night of marching band (I was in the band too by then). I remember the odd feeling of jealousy as I watched a HAREM (yes, an actual harem) of girls come his locks into these ridiculous puffy balls (and not like the now “cool” man bun) to fit under his marching band hat. Most importantly, there was the time he left his friends to come and talk to me as I sat alone on a bench waiting for my mother. I was reading A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks. He happily let me gab about the book. 

As time drew on, I thought I could tell he was interested in me. I even journaled about it in my AP English notebook. I wasn’t sure if I should make the first move or if I should even go out with him. I wasn’t sure I wanted anything serious. I wasn’t sure if he was anything like the type that I was interested in (thank heavens not since Willoughbys aren’t really a good type to have). The teacher encouraged me to just try one date. It seems so basic now! Hahaha. Oh to be seventeen again!

I started trying to drop hints. I would go to him for homework help. I would talk about action movies playing and ask if he was interested in seeing them. Then there was my very own Mr. Collins who would just not take a hint. Saying no to an underclassman asking me to prom (when he couldn’t attend on his own) would probably mean I’m also not interested in dating him in any other fashion, right? However, Mr. Collins was a bit persistent and I can’t blame him for that. I wasn’t ever afraid of him, but I did see the possibility to ask a big, tall guy to walk me to class. It worked like a charm in getting Mr. Collins to leave me alone. However, the big, tall guy still didn’t ask me out. Sigh.

circa June 2004

Finally, he asked me to prom. Unfortunately, I had other plans and had to say no. He ran away before I could say more. I agonized all weekend long. When we returned to school, I invited him to a church banquet that was held in honor of the graduating seniors each year. That year, I was the only senior, so it was really just for me. He said yes. A few days later, we planned to talk on the phone to arrange things. He never called. Then I tried calling him and got no answer. I tried several times over the weekend. I thought he lost interest! I was spitting mad by the time I saw him again. It turns out, his grandfather had died. Thank goodness I had minded my tongue. 

We finally talked on the phone and I mentioned upcoming plans with a friend to go to a place with mini golf, go karts, batting cages, and some arcade games. He asked if he could come. In hindsight, I should have probably run that by my friend who suddenly became the third wheel. Oops! He beat the pants off us in mini golf and air hockey, although he did try to make it even by getting on his knees. He’s over a foot taller than me, so that made us nearly even height. 

A few days later was our official first date. You know…if it can be a first date surrounded by 250 people and nearly all of them strangers to him. Now, I appreciate how nervous he must have been but was clueless to it then. After the banquet, a friend had an “after party” sort of thing at her house. However, we mostly split up between our friends. More oops. However, we did get a private good bye (just a platonic hug–or at least platonic on my side). 

The next day, I flew to Florida for the summer. He called me every day. He emailed me several times a day. He even called me the day he got his wisdom teeth cut out and he was not supposed to be talking. We talked about everything. I learned he believed in ghosts. His favorite color was hunter green. One of his favorite subjects in history was the Titanic. He knew far more about the American Civil War than our teacher did. He  opened my eyes to a different point of view on many things. 

It was lovely to get to know him long distance. By the time I returned to Virginia in mid-August, though, I was ready to get to know him in person. We went on a date or two before I was invited back to his house. There was a moment where I was on his porch while he had gone inside for a moment. He came back out and called my name and I swear, the world stopped for a minute. I think I knew I was in love then. It was like I wanted to hear him say my name for the rest of my life. 

Oh, but I couldn’t admit it was love then. I couldn’t TRUST. We were inseprable from about that time onward, but I held out. He was ready to say the big L word long before me. I told him I had been hurt before. I told him I couldn’t trust. Bless the man for being patient with me. Whenever he wanted to say he loved me but knew I wasn’t ready to hear it, he would just squeeze my hand. 

December 18, 2004

I suppose most would say I got over that fear pretty fast. By the end of September I was willing to say I loved him and by the middle of November we were officially engaged. At the time, though, it felt like forever as I tried to work past my reasons for distrust.

His family totally disapproved of the engagement and me in particular. What annoyed us the most is the very people who made him become an adult long before his years, suddenly wanted to treat him like a child. I suppose I understand it all more now. I surely hope my children are not mature enough to get married at 19. I hope they haven’t had to be adults in children’s bodies for years by the time they reach a legal age. 

Our thirteen month engagement was not without difficulties. Neither has our fourteen year marriage. I thought I loved him when I walked down that aisle. I thought I knew we would handle anything life threw at us and that I could always count on him. Now, I truly know I can. He has seen me at my absolute worst. He has been the calm in my storm. He has held me when I was lonely and broken, wiped my tears when I cried whether he understood them or not. I could describe the ways I have born his ego or moods but it is nothing compared to what he has done for me.

December 2015 (We need a new family pic so bad!!)

When we married, I thought he was Mr. Darcy. Now, I see shades of Mr. Knightley. He is far wiser than me. I see bits of Mr. Tilney. He can always make me laugh. He is my Colonel Brandon after Willoughby broke my heart. There are pieces of Edward Ferrars and his quiet reserve. Like Edmund, he has been my champion when others have not understood or respected me. Just as Captain Wentworth proved his enduring love for Anne, so has my husband proven his love for me. 

I’m a very blessed lady and know that I have the best man out there. Neither one of us are perfect, but we make it work. Of all the love stories I have written, my favorite is my own. My perfect Jane Austen hero is my husband, a combination of all of them. 

Tuesday Thoughts– Unlikable Heroes

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Recently, I’ve read a few books that have left me dissatisfied. I even stopped reading in the middle of them. Gasp! They were not JAFFs or even Regency Romance. They were Contemporary Romances which are always a hit or miss for me anyway.

The contemptible sin?

The hero was unlikable.

Oh, they didn’t begin so unlikable. In both situations that I am thinking of, the hero and heroine had a past together and were separated by the hero’s wanderlust. Then, a chance thing throws them together and all seems well for weeks or even months. The heroine works through layers of distrust and just when she seems to have come all the way through it, he leaves again.

Logically, I understand this is the “dark moment” of conflict which all stories require. However, if he leaves the woman before the story even starts, we then go through the entire book and it seems like he has had actual character improvement, and then he reverts back and does the same thing–nope, not reading that. Especially when there is less than 30% left of the book. He’s going to get a second aha moment and somehow just when the heroine’s distrust is totally proven and justified they’re going to get through it again? What were all the other pages for then?

It’s worth adding that although this is a second chance theme, at least one of the books was not labeled as such. There was nothing in the blurb which suggested they had known each other first.

This scenario doesn’t have to apply only to heroes with wanderlust. This character regression scenario can happen in any sort of plot and with a heroine as well. When I write a story, I try to be very aware of the journey my characters are on. If Mr. Darcy is suddenly arrogant again at the climax of the story when he seemed to have learned his lesson and behaved well for the last 15 chapters–that’s a major structural issue. If Elizabeth swears she has learned from her past mistakes and then we see her doubting Darcy in the last third of the book–how can I trust her character arc?

Consider how Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice. Darcy is revealed to have not been as awful as Elizabeth supposed. After his letter, she realizes that there were signs with Wickham she ought to have always seen. However, it’s not a sudden reversal of her opinion. She continues to think Darcy is unlikable until they meet at Pemberley. Then his behavior is so different and general reports of him so good that she comes to realize that she had never fully understood him before. She trusts him enough to tell him about Lydia’s elopement. Once Lydia is married, she doesn’t worry that he will be vindictive and spread the news around. She doesn’t even worry too much that Lydia’s elopement would keep him from Longbourn except at the idea of being brother-in-law to Wickham. That concern is due to a belief that Darcy is so justified he should not be subjected to such a degradation. When she hears that Darcy helped arrange Lydia’s marriage, Elizabeth does not doubt it or assign mean motives. And when Lady Catherine storms to Longbourn and insists that Darcy will marry her daughter, Elizabeth can only think that his aunt’s arguments might, justly, fall on his weakest side. She is entirely humbled from her earlier opinion about Mr. Darcy. When they next meet, she opens the conversation with gratitude, not remonstrances or sly comments as she had done a year before.

Elizabeth Bennet is not always likable. She makes fun of people. She makes mistakes and they hurt innocent people. However, as she continues on her arc, she truly changes. When everything seems darkest for Darcy and Elizabeth, the story does not rely on Elizabeth reverting to her old behavior and way of thinking. That, to me, would be an unlikable character.

What do you think? Is that sort of character arc important to you when you read?

Tuesday Thoughts–Authenticity

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Not too long ago, I saw a post on Facebook which claimed a specific period drama production was inferior to another because it wasn’t authentic to the era. The original poster based her opinion on matters of costuming and smiling. I’m not joking. She’s certainly entitled to her opinion. However, what upset me was that she claimed, without citing sources, that certain behaviors in the production were inappropriate for the era and productions should be more than dress up.

Well, I would agree with that. What I struggle with is the notion that because one or even five contemporary books mention a behavior as inappropriate for the era that it is conclusive proof.

As a trained historian, I would suggest people start with primary documents. Hopefully, any general information guide to whatever historical era one reads contains well-documented sources and possibly a further reading list. Such books should include many documents which discuss the matter first hand. An example of a primary versus secondary document would be a conduct book from the Regency era stating ladies riding in carriages unchaperoned was scandalous. A secondary document would quote another book (which might very well quote the primary material). The concern is that the middleman might be squeezing something to fit their argument.

The debate doesn’t end once one looks at primary documents, though. For example, the conduct book which says a lady shouldn’t ride alone with a man in a carriage is only one clue to the standards of the era. Consider in nearly ever Jane Austen novel, a lady (even the heroine) does so, and her reputation is not destroyed, and no one presumes an engagement or compromise has happened. Jane Austen was not bandied about as a scandalous author of the era. It can be assumed that society, in general, was not as rigid as the conduct book would appear to make it seem. The work doesn’t stop there either. Add other works of fiction and non-fiction to your research list. Add personal accounts and newspapers. Look at art from the era. Understand the artist and the context. Just because it was painted does not mean it was portrayed in a good light. Consider and consider again and again.

Once you have done so, remember that you have only researched to your own best abilities. Someone else might have spent twenty years in the Cambridge library and uncover documents which point in a different direction. Remember that there is an entire field of study called historiography, which is about the changing ways historians study and discuss history. Even historians can’t agree on things let alone for all eternity.

History is a living thing. It is shaped by those in the past, present, and future. If you want authenticity in history, you had better build a time machine and even then, it might vary wildly based on your own experience. For example, I have always lived in an area where there were few vegetarians and organic produce is hard to come by. However, other regions have an entirely different experience. If someone would write a book in the future about a heroine who enjoyed meat and never had organic produce, someone might scoff, but it’s quite accurate.

Now, consider what the book is attempting to tell the readers by making the heroine a carnivore with tainted produce. Does she not care about her health? Or is it part of a health regimen? Does she not believe in all the research? Is it a financial concern? Is availability a factor?

By the same token, consider that no one could have gone around and studied every single person of the gentry class and record if they smiled with their teeth. On the other hand, stays (not called corsets) and fashion prints from the era have survived, and while I am entirely sure some women likely modified them to enhance their ahem, attributes, that was not the original intent for them. One might consider why a lady would change them and what it would mean about her personality and character. What would it say about a gentleman who is attracted to a lady who does such? For that matter, if smiling with your teeth “bared” is indeed so bad, under what conditions would a person do so? What would it signal about their feelings? How might others react?

It’s important when you are considering a piece of media, whether it be film or book, and its representation of history to understand its attempt at authenticity. The first step is to educate yourself. After you have investigated history, you must evaluate your source of media. Only then can you begin to unveil the authenticity of the work in question.