opinions

Putting Place Names in their Proper Frames

Wizened issues Average a calling with a slew of fanciful place namesWhenever I see fanciful or imaginative place names, real or fictional, my first instinct is not, “Ooh, how neat!” It’s more along the lines of, “What were they smoking when they named that?”

I live in a city called Mesa. Literally “table,” because it sits on a plateau. Nearby land features include South Mountain (to the south), Red Mountain (guess what color!), and the Salt River, which runs through salt banks on the Fort Apache Reservation.

The Salt is fed by the Black and White Rivers, which come from the White Mountains to the north. (Where it snows. Surprise.) We also have the Verde River and the ever exotic Gila River (pronounced “hee-lah”), but don’t get too excited. They translate to “green” and “salty,” respectively.

The most imaginatively named land features in the area? Those would probably be Camelback Mountain, which looks roughly camel-shaped from the side, and a range to the east called the Superstitions. But these are, of course, part of that vast and intuitively named North American system, the Rocky Mountains.

(Spoiler alert: you can find many rocks therein.)

Place Names: A Fine Art

One might contend that this stark realism in naming is a feature of desert living, but it’s not. Place names across the world break down in a similar manner.

The British Isles sport a number of “feature” names that, thanks to language change, no longer appear as mundane as they once were. Consider the following elements:

  • “dun” = hill
  • “fen” = swamp
  • “-more” = moor
  • “-kirk” = church
  • “avon” = river
  • “-lea”/”-ly” = meadow
  • “thorp”/”throp” = village
  • “-ford” = river crossing
  • “way” = road
  • “strat” = street

When you start combining these with each other and with other elements, the resulting names have a classical, established sense to them. And then you realize that the River Avon is literally the River River, a “dunhill” is a hill-hill, and the high-sounding Fenmore can only denote an exceptionally boggy bog.

Even the poetic Stratford-upon-Avon breaks down into “street-river-crossing-upon-river.” And suddenly it’s not so poetic anymore.

This convention holds true for other languages as well. The infamous Llanfairpwllgwyngyll in Wales translates (reportedly) to “the parish of St. Mary in the hollow of the white hazel.”

Meanwhile, the New Zealand landmark of Taumatawhakatangi­hangakoauauotamatea­turipukakapikimaunga­horonukupokaiwhen­uakitanatahu might intimidate the casual reader, but it only means, “The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the slider, climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his nose flute to his loved one.” (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

Which is why, when I see fantasy book maps with mountain ranges called the Jagged Spine or the Teeth of Hecate or whatever, it rings false. From what I can tell, settlers across cultures have arrived in new areas, looked around, and said something along the lines of, “Hey, this forest is pretty black. Let’s call it the Black Forest.”

Semantic Bleaching at its Finest

Many place names carry an otherworldly, fanciful sense because their meaning is not readily accessible to the average speaker. Foreign wording or language change swathes the landmark in a layer of mystery. Places named for their founders or in honor of other notable figures further establish that esoteric feel, because more and more often, proper names exist separate from their original definitions.

This chasm between word and meaning introduces uniqueness and wonder, but it can also give the impression that place names are arbitrary.

Typically, they’re not.

Now, this isn’t to say that the run-of-the-mill fantasy author should put away their scrabble tiles and take a more conventional route to naming their landmarks. Rather, when the darts are thrown and the seemingly random letters assemble into a slick-sounding country, the questions that follow might be, “How came this name in the history of my world? What is its root? What does it mean?”

And the answer doesn’t need a lot of window dressing. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with a place called “Red River” or “Castle View.” On the contrary, that simple detail can lend authenticity in a world where the unfamiliar reigns.

My two cents. (Of course.)

Literary Influences: Tower of God by SIU

Confession: In the grand scheme of media—print, film, and digital—I actively follow only one series. I used to follow many, but over the years they’ve all gotten the boot, except this One. It must be something extraordinary, right?

Oh yes, my friends, it is.

Tower of God is a Korean webtoon written and illustrated by SIU (a pseudonym that stands for “Slave In Utero,” which is strikingly macabre). It chronicles the adventures of a motley collection of characters as they ascend a sprawling tower in pursuit of ultimate glory.

What, you say?

I came across this webtoon circa 2010 (probably 4-6 months after it started its current incarnation), and I’ve been hooked ever since.

How can you not love such an epic title plate?

How can you not love such an epic title plate?

What Makes This Series Great

#1: The Characters

We’ll start with the main trifecta, Bam, Khun, and Rak.

The Twenty-Fifth Bam (aka Bam, black turtle, et al.): our innocent, enigmatic hero has no clue how the tower works because he has spent most of his life in darkness and isolation. He’s an irregular irregular: although he opens the tower doors himself instead of being chosen to climb, he doesn’t have the monster-like strength or skills of the other irregulars that have forced their way in. Except that he sometimes does, which is superb fun.

Favorite Bam moment: all of ’em. I freaking love this kid.

Khun Aguero Agnes (aka Mr. Khun, blue turtle, A.A., et al.): crafty, cunning, and self-serving, Khun sabotaged his own sister and raided his father’s treasure trove before starting his journey up the tower. He’s determined to win in every situation he encounters, and he’s not above using shady means. In fact, “shady means” is his preferred method.

Favorite Khun moment: pretty much any time he takes control, but his first appearance in Season 2 makes me giddy with joy every time I read it. He owns that ridiculous outfit like no one else could.

Rak Wraithraiser (aka Rak, crocodile, et al.): a giant reptilian warrior who hunts those with strength so he can fight them and get stronger. Rak is, delightfully, the comic relief. He refers to everyone else as “turtles,” and has quite the collection of specific names. He is the “leader” of the Bam/Khun/Rak trifecta (although Khun is usually the orchestrator).

Favorite Rak moment: “This turtle is his wife.” I’m not even going to explain. Imma just leave it at that.

On the powerful, confident female side of the character spectrum, we have the following:

Ha Yuri Jahad: a high-ranker and a princess of the tower’s ruler, Jahad. Yuri encounters Bam on the bottom floor just after he enters, and she ensures that he gets a fair shot at his initial challenge.

Favorite Yuri moment: Her foot-to-the-face greeting makes for a dynamic first entrance; her battle on the Hell Train is pretty epic too.

Androssi Jahad: another princess of Jahad, Androssi enters the Floor of Test at roughly the same time Bam does. Her status makes her a pop-culture icon as she progresses upward.  (Note: she’s “Endorsi Jahad” in the official English translations; I have a soft spot for the fan-translated “Androssi.”)

Favorite Androssi moment: She’s referred to as a “tank” on more than one occasion, and it makes me laugh because she looks like a delicate girl but she’ll legit mess you up.

Hwa Ryun: a one-eyed, redheaded guide; or, well, she doesn’t start off one-eyed, but there’s this incident, and she pretty much rocks her eyepatch in the aftermath.

Favorite Hwa Ryun moment: “Pig, pig, pig, pig, pig, pig, pig, pig, pig.”

Describing all the other great characters would balloon this post to an easy 10K words. Each has their own personality and traits, and as they become more familiar, they become more beloved.

With one exception. There is one character that pretty much every last fan of this series wants to die in a horrible, grisly, face-mangling death. But disclosing who it is would be such a massive spoiler that it would destroy half the fun. Ha ha.

(Like, it takes some serious talent to create someone so universally and violently despised. I’d hate for you to miss out on any of that joy.)

#2: The Themes

Friendship. Loyalty. Ingenuity. Betrayal.

So much betrayal.

And yet, alongside that betrayal run the dual themes of forgiveness and redemption. Characters must constantly choose between honor and self-interest, but even those who make the selfish choice have innate value, and they are worthy of redemption.

(Except the Unnamed Hated One, I mean. Every rule has its exception.)

At some point in the series, I realized that I approach each new chapter with my heart in my hands. Every gut-wrenching cliffhanger sets my brain a-frenzy. And yet, like a masochist, I keep returning.

The good guys don’t always win. Sometimes they suffer horrible, devastating setbacks. They weather physical and mental anguish. They fall in with the bad guys for a season.

And that, ultimately, is why I list Tower of God as a “literary influence.” Right now, it’s my benchmark for high stakes and reader engagement. It makes me ask, “Am I letting my characters suffer enough? What if I twisted my plots just a little bit more?”

It’s wonderful, this literary trauma.

Some Caveats

If you start this series, I will warn you:

  1. The beginning art is a bit shaky. Cut those early chapters some slack, though, because the later visuals are phenomenal.
  2. The plot can feel nebulous. It gets clearer as you go, but in some respects, its nebulousness is a plus, because it makes for some exhilarating revelations.
  3. The text has a lot of grammatical errors. But it was originally written in Korean. Any of us not blessed to read Hangul are lucky for what we get. (Seriously, if you get hung up on the grammar, this series will be wasted on you. Just let it slide.)

As of last Monday, Tower of God is 300 episodes long, with the next one soon to drop. You can find its official English translation HERE.

Enjoy!

The Most Potent of Good-luck Charms

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Once upon a time, fictional dogs didn’t stand a snowball’s chance of surviving to the end of the story. Old YellerBristle Face, and Where the Red Fern Grows taught generations of children to weep in trauma.

Then, presumably, those children grew up and took over the entertainment industry. The canine body count had reached critical mass and the pendulum swung the opposite direction.

Particularly where disaster movies were concerned.

The ’90s boasted a series of apocalyptic films, many of them coming in thematic pairs, and most if not all of them hosting a common plot thread:

  • Volcano (1997): The dog lives.
  • Dante’s Peak (1997): The dog lives.
  • Armageddon (1998): The dog lives.

Yes, humans are dropping like flies and all mayhem abounds, but those furry, rambunctious pets somehow manage to avoid any serious injury.

Independence Day (1996) features the now-infamous scene of the family dog leaping into a concrete shelter mere seconds before a raging wall of fire sweeps past. The feel-good moment belies its context. Millions of people have just been incinerated off screen, but the audience is supposed to cheer for a dog.

(There’s also the physics-defying politeness of the flames not to flood that sheltered nook and barbecue its occupants. So kind of the inferno to magically pass by, as though fire traveling forcefully on air currents wouldn’t press into every opening it encounters.)

But, I’ll admit, the first time I saw the film, I did cheer. No one wants a fictional dog to die. (Unless it’s Cujo, I mean.)

One of the more egregious example of The Dog that Lives trope appears in the 1996 disaster flick Daylight. A group of people seek to escape a collapsed traffic tunnel beneath a river, their path immersed in darkness and slowly rising waters. The dog, which belongs to the token elderly couple of the ensemble, doesn’t make it through one of the chambers. Grandma is despondent. She can’t go on. She gives up and dies.

And the freaking dog shows up again, like, five minutes later, to make a final escape.

Hooray! Fido’s alive!

Granted, the owner who loved him so much is floating lifeless in the darkened depths below, but that’s not important. And all those people who croaked in the initial disaster and along the way, well, they’re just faceless casualties. And yeah, his appearance caused the protagonist to (stupidly) jump back into the waters to save him and subsequently get trapped again and have to find another way out.

But it was totes worth it, m’kay?

For the record, I love animals. Dogs are among the purest, most loving creatures on the earth.

But when push comes to shove in a disaster story line, they take second tier on my list of priorities. When creators bend over backwards to let the dog live while simultaneously slaughtering human characters by the dozens, I’m out.

***

PS – For a comical take on the Ill-Fated Dog trope, try No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman.

The Principle of Expendable Virtue

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We’ve all seen it: two people of casual acquaintance thrown into a story line that involves instant death bearing down upon them. And suddenly, in the midst of calamity, voila! A lurrrve subplot is born!

Sure, they might grapple with a token moral dilemma—”Should we? Should we not?”—but inevitably, the qualms recede as the end draws nigh. Principles aren’t that important, you guys.

This phenomenon of expendable virtue can crop up in pretty much any impending-death scenario, but the cataclysmic doomsday genre allows it to flourish. It encourages its characters to participate in an angst-filled battle against regret and to arrive upon its “seize the day” solution.

Which is ironic, because impromptu hook-ups are more often a cause of regret rather than a means of avoiding it. But I digress.

I have issues with this subplot for several reasons, three of which I’ll here discuss.

1. It illustrates selfishness.

I get the whole “unfulfilled love” vein of regrets, but intimacy born of impulse is the opposite of love. It’s a self-serving act, and too often it comes with an “anyone will do” undertone. Person A solicits Person B to satisfy their own desires. “But Person A has always secretly loved Person B,” you might contend.

Yeah, sorry. It still rings hollow. It would hold a lot more weight for me if Person A only wanted to spend time with Person B and wasn’t angling for some action, but that’s rarely the case.

2. Characters in this subplot can come across as predatory.

This is particularly true when one of the parties involved is at all reluctant. One partner pressuring the other for intimacy creates an unequal power balance, and using impending doom as a means of coercion is a special brand of vile.

That’s something captors do to hostages. It’s what abusers do to their victims. It’s a mind game. “You don’t want to have these consequences, do you? You should obey me.”

Yuck.

3. It’s fundamentally godless.

This one is probably fine for readers with atheist or agnostic leanings. I don’t fit in that category, but I get the logic. If death is certain and there’s nothing beyond, why not engage in behavior that might otherwise be reckless or ill-advised?

Except that there’s a whole list of behaviors we should never engage in under any circumstances: arson, murder, rape, molestation, animal cruelty, and so forth. And no, I’m not drawing a parallel between consensual sex and criminal activity, but when the argument boils down to, “Let’s do this because there will be no consequences,” the line between right and wrong no longer exists. Why shouldn’t a character go on a murder spree if there won’t be any consequences?

(Incidentally, that could be a fascinating subplot for a doomsday story, and a heck of a lot more original than the Desperate Awkward Love trope.)

The moral dilemma variation to this subplot only enhances the scenario’s inherent godlessness: in the face of impending destruction, characters cast aside life-long beliefs and embrace the philosophy of “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”—a philosophy that only works if there’s no final reckoning in the Great Beyond.

Frankly, abandonment of faith and principles is the last thing I want to see in any character’s closing hours. That’s depressing, even more so than an Imminent Fiery Death.

I’d much rather see kindness, hope, encouragement, people being decent to one another, reconnecting with family, mending fences. A million potential regrets would loom over someone’s head in a doomsday scenario, but love—true, lasting love for family and dearest friends—dominates that list.

Our culture is obsessed with romance, though, and spur-of-the-moment intimacy marks the apex of that ideal. So, we get hackneyed subplots about gangly teens trying to fulfill their warped sense of love, validation, and lost adulthood instead.

Yay.

*gags*

Principles are not meant to be disposable. They’re supposed to remain constant regardless of external circumstances. The whole “You don’t want to die a virgin, do you?” line of persuasion should lead to one obvious answer: “Why not? That’s the way I lived.”

But there’s no drama in that, only dignity—which is one of the most underrated virtues of all.

 

Hopefully You’re Not Offended by This

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It never fails to amaze me the outrage that people can muster up about language use. An example from the recent past lies in the innocent and well-meaning word hopefully.

The English language has a fairly robust tradition of creating sentence modifiers from words and phrases in its lexicon. See surely, certainly, clearly, curiously, oddly enough, be that as it may, however, regardless, and so forth. Syntactically, these words and phrases shift from a lexical to a rhetorical meaning when they enter the sentence modifier position (the Complementizer Phrase, found at the head of our minimalist CP-TP-VP  sentence structure).

In this shift, they undergo a process of linguistic bleaching: their literal meaning gets expunged and replaced with a rhetorical/conversational meaning instead. So, for example,

  • Surely you can’t be serious ≠ In a sure manner you can’t be serious. (And don’t call me Shirley.)
  • Oddly enough, she swore like a sailor ≠ In an odd enough manner, she swore like a sailor.
  • Regardless, I can’t come to the play ≠ Without regard, I can’t come to the play.

We never think that clearly at the start of a sentence means in a clear manner, and hardly anyone gives a second thought to the present-subjective mood of be that as it may. (Count me among the exceptions to that “hardly.” But the subjective mood is a linguistic amusement to me, so there it is.)

Why, then, the great fuss over hopefully?

The first attested use of this word as a sentence adverb comes from the 1930s. It gained popularity in the 1960s, and that’s when chaos erupted, so to speak. The grammar gatekeepers did not like it. They denounced it in print. They blamed the Germans (yes, really). When it crossed over the pond, British gatekeepers derided it as an Americanism. Strunk & White (1972) declaimed it.

(You know it’s SRS BSNS when Strunk & White gets involved, peeps.)

“It’s ambiguous!”

“It lacks a point of view when it’s used that way!”

“It’s just a trend, and a bad one!”

The outrage multiplied for a decade and more until it reached its peak in the mid-1970s.

And then it atrophied. Scholars who had denounced its use resigned themselves to inevitability. Some of them retracted their position. Some even decided to champion the word.

And yet, decades later, the rancor against it lingers.

If you look up “hopefully” at Dictionary.com, you get three different sources cited and three different attitudes in those sources. The first declares its sentence-modifier usage to be “fully standard in all varieties of speech and writing.”¹ The second claims that it “has now become acceptable in informal contexts.”² The third, in its snootiest possible accent, says simply that it is “avoided by careful writers.”³

Hopefully that third source doesn’t mind me quoting them here. I mean, hopefully they understand by now that the English language is fluid, that it likes to change and that this is hardly the worst infraction it’s performed in its thousand-year history. Hopefully.

Because I’m pretty sure this one’s here to stay, folks. At least for a few more years.

(Hopefully. Haha.)

 

Citations:

  1. hopefully. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/hopefully (accessed: February 01, 2016).
  2. hopefully. Dictionary.com. Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers.http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/hopefully (accessed: February 01, 2016).
  3. hopefully. Dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/hopefully(accessed: February 01, 2016).

The Frenzy of Running for the Border

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Trope #1: Elopement

Let’s talk about unintended consequences, shall we?

In 1753, the British Parliament passed Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, with the intention of curtailing marriages performed in secret. Prior to this act, English clergymen could perform marriages without the couple having to procure a license or post banns. They would be fined for performing the ceremony in a parochial church house (thanks to an earlier Marriage Act), but the marriage was still valid.

And if they performed the marriage in London’s Fleet Prison, there was no fine at all (because of that earlier Marriage Act’s unintended consequences, hahaha).

Romantic, isn’t it? “Come, darling! Let’s run away to the prison house and get married amid the beggars and debtors!”

But that line must have worked. By the 1740s, roughly 12.5% of English marriages were Fleet Marriages, and their participants came from all walks of life, both rich and poor, upper and lower class.

The Marriage Act of 1753 was supposed to close this prison loophole, and it did.

Only to open another one: the Act didn’t apply to foreign marriages—including those performed in Scotland.

Cue a grand rush for the northern border, and the eventual emergence of a UK marriage icon: Gretna Green. This little border town lies along the road from London to Edinburgh. If a Regency romance talks of elopements, Gretna Green is the most likely destination, the nearest point where couples fleeing north could marry one another without the pesky need of parental consent or government sanctions.

(It’s kind of like the safe space in the game of Tag. Once you’ve crossed the line you can look back at the people chasing you and call, “Nanny-nanny-boo-boo! You ca-an’t catch me!”)

The journey was long, and the woman’s reputation would be in shambles before the couple arrived, but a quick ceremony would remedy all. So too for those who fled across the Channel from Dover to Calais, France: spend a night on a boat, get up the next morning in a foreign country, and all your marriage obstacles have magically disappeared!

Isn’t elopement wonderful?

The ease with which a woman’s reputation could be ruined in this period, though, provides an alternate and more salacious window for drama.

Trope #2: Abduction

When you pick up a Regency romance, you can lay odds that someone within those pages will get abducted. Because of the era’s social constraints, the heroine’s virtue can be used against her as leverage for forcing her into an unwanted marriage, and without the perpetrator ever having to lay a finger on her. Passing a night unchaperoned in his near vicinity is enough to seal the deal.

If she’s a beautiful heiress, the chances of this scenario skyrocket. The abduction motif is almost built into the template alongside the devastatingly handsome hero and the array of social events.

And, more recently (i.e., post-Georgette Heyer), the guy performing the abduction is never quite up to snuff.

Maybe he’s crazy or deluded. He might be a fop, trying too hard to play the part of a Regency beau and falling short in his attempt, or he could be anywhere from dull to horrid in the looks department. One way or another, he’s defective, a social outlier framed in such a way that he poses no allure for the heroine or the reader.

Because the hero has to save her so they can finally confess their lurrrve to each other.

Yes, we’re playing literary football again, and Girl-as-Object is alive and well. In this scenario, however, no one’s rooting for the away team. And, true to his less-than-desirable image, the off-beat abductor never triumphs.

Which is a good thing. No one picks up a Regency with the desire to get depressed.

I would like some more competent abductors, though. It would be okay if the guy was a handsome, cunning sociopath instead of a desperate, penniless fop. There’s no need to frame him in a way that makes him completely unsuitable as a love interest before the abduction ever occurs.

The abduction can do that job well enough on its own.

(And really, that seems like the best reason for including an abduction in the plot at all.)

The Joys of Literary Beauty Pageants

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Oh, those opportunistic rakes. Whatever would we do without them?

In Regency romance, any female rival is most likely a “diamond of the first water”: beautiful, poised, rich, accomplished, beautiful, well-dressed, beautiful. Did I mention that she’s beautiful? There’s a reason for that. Such stunning rival characters up the ante on a plain-Jane heroine, thereby making the heroine’s eventual triumph with the hero all that much sweeter.

Hero: My dear, you underestimate your beauty. You have the radiance of a thousand suns.

Heroine: You cannot mean it. I am so very plain.

Hero: No.  You are infinitely more beautiful than any other woman in the world.

Heroine: *swoons*

Destined Couple: *smoochy-smoochy-smoochy*

Freckle-faced Reader: The ordinary girl won out over the beauty queen? Maybe it can happen to me, too! *SQUEEEEEEEEEE!!!*

This motif is not restricted to Regencies, of course. It runs rampant through the broader Romance genre, including YA novels with a romance side-plot. It all hails back, once again, to the Girl with Low Self-Esteem (that wretched, pervasive trope).

The emphasis on physical beauty demonstrates how shallow any set of characters are. Which is why it’s so at home in Regency novels: it’s the hallmark of an era where image is everything. Women are chattel, and their main objective is marriage, so of course the prettier packages will fetch a better buyer.

(The men can be as ugly as all get-out as long as they’re rich or humorous to make up for it. Different standards for different sexes.)

In a novel where the heroine has self-esteem, it doesn’t matter how pretty a rival might be. The heroine won’t make comparisons because her worth doesn’t hinge on outshining anyone else. She might even admire the other woman’s looks and acknowledge her superior beauty.

Because it’s not a threat.

It seems as though general literary preferences tip towards the plain-girl-defeats-beautiful-rival scenario, however. Maybe it’s because we instinctively want to root for an underdog. Maybe we each see ourselves as an underdog standing against the vast and oppressive world, and such stories bolster our confidence to go out and conquer. Maybe we all have inferiority complexes and like to see those who are “superior” made to eat crow in the end.

Maybe we all think of ourselves as plain.

(I mean, I’ve been looking at this same face in the mirror for decades now. How boring is that?)

Popular literature reflects a culture’s psychology. You want to know what the people of a certain era or area value? Examine the art and literature they produce. In it you might discover their hopes, their fears, their expectations on life…

And you might discover that they have a shallow obsession with image.

(Perhaps the Regency era is not so far removed from our own after all.)

The Benefit of Bucking Traditional Values

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There’s this age-old lie in romance novels that truly eligible men are looking for something new, something fresh in the woman of their dreams. Often this translates into a heroine who breaks social boundaries as a sign of her individual merit.

Don’t buy into it. In real life, he might like your sass while you’re dating, but two months into your marriage he’ll start complaining that you’re too outspoken and that your hamburger casserole tastes nothing like his mother’s. To some extent, I think, men are conditioned into assuming they want a woman who breaks boundaries. Then when they get one, they wonder why she can’t tone it down and be normal.

(Or so I’ve observed.)

Regency romances are particularly egregious at perpetuating this stereotype. For example:

Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer: Judith Taverner drives her own curricle through the park in London. She takes snuff like a man (in a variety mixed for her by her love interest, and IMO, if there’s anything more disgusting than a man taking snuff, it’s a woman doing it in the name of fashion). She finally gets a good scolding when she participates in a carriage race through the countryside, but she’s been allowed to run so far off her leash that it doesn’t occur to her before this how extremely improper her actions are.

The Wooing of Miss Masters by Susan Carroll: Audra Leigh Masters swears like a man. She hates fox hunting so much that she’ll put herself in harm’s way to save the creatures, like any modern dedicated PETA member might do—except that she lives in the early 1800s, not in the twenty-first century. (Confession: this book is one of my guilty pleasures, but when you step back and look at Audra and her love interest as human beings, they’re both kind of awful. That might be why I like it so much, though.)

Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson: Marianne Daventry loves to twirl, despite the disasters that happen every time she does it. She also loves to pretend she’s a dairy-maid in training both with her respectable grandmother and with slightly obnoxious gentlemen she meets by chance in country inns. But it’s totally charming of her, of course.

All of these traits make for “different” or “unique” heroines. And, admittedly, I’ve only highlighted their aberrant characteristics (though honestly, Judith and Audra are kind of lost causes when it comes to conforming to social expectations; Marianne at least has a sense of shame and tries to conduct herself with decorum in mixed company). The men who adore these women, though, are completely fictional as well.

So what kind of story would exist if the hero reflected society’s usual reaction toward a heroine with non-traditional behavior?

I present to you Fantomina by Eliza Haywood. (No, no. Don’t thank me. You haven’t even heard what it’s about yet.)

Published in 1725 (still the Georgian era, but almost a century before Regency times), this fascinatingly atrocious novella tells the story of a lady of good birth who, so taken by a fine gentleman, embarks on a course of intrigue to enjoy his intimate company. She disguises herself first as a prostitute who charms him into visiting her house for, oh, like a good two weeks. Then he gets bored and goes to Bath, so she follows him, dresses up like a servant, gets a job where he lives, and continues to enjoy his amorous company there for a month. And he gets bored again and returns to London. But she dresses up like a widow and meets him along the way, and again they share each other’s company. And so it goes. Back in London she plays three different people at once (the prostitute, the widow, and a third mask-wearing mystery woman) to keep his attentions engaged.

And because she’s been performing these illicit activities in disguise with false names, her reputation as a lady of quality remains intact.

Until she goes into labor at a very public ball and gets rushed home to deliver a strapping baby girl.

Disgrace! Ruin!

The ending really takes the cake. Forced on her delivery to confess her sins, she names the baby’s father. He gets dragged there, professing the whole time that he’s never had designs on her much less followed through on them. The full extent of her deceit emerges.

Her mother apologizes to him and sends her off to a convent for the rest of her life.

The End.

Because it’s totally fine that this fashionable gentleman was sleeping around with four or five different women at the same time (who all happened to be the same person, haha). That he unwittingly fathers a child with a lady of quality is nothing to hold against him. Certainly he shouldn’t have to take responsibility for his actions with someone who was acting outside of societal boundaries.

(Even recounting the story makes me want to… Oh, how does the Internet put it? KILL ALL THE THINGS.)

Yes, give me your lies, Regency romance. I’ll take your adorable, aberrant heroines and their dashing amours any day of the week.

I’ve seen the alternative. It’s not pretty.

Gentlemen Fine and Dandy

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Amid the plethora of Regency social rules is the expectation that young ladies entering Society be presented by an established friend or relative of high reputation. There’s no showing up to the party on your own here, girls. Any unchaperoned miss will be turned away at the door.

And then gossiped about for weeks afterwards, the hussy.

This wise female protector is only one gatekeeper that guards a lady’s path from the schoolroom to social success. Other established women will determine whether she remains in good standing, whether she is admitted to certain assembly rooms, and even whether she’s allowed to dance the waltz. (Such a scandalous dance, you know. Practically the Regency equivalent of twerking.)

And it’s all a great big joke, because the morals of this period were non-existent. The façade was all that mattered.

The fictional dukes, earls, knights, counts, viscounts, etc. that have been created in the name of Regency and other Georgian-era romances quite possibly outnumber the nonfictional noblemen from A.D. 1066 to present by now. A rich, handsome lord is the big fish when it comes to romantic heroes in this genre, even though the quintessential Regency-era hero was a mere “Mr.”

(Paging Fitzwilliam Darcy. You’re wanted by women everywhere.)

You can usually tell from the onset of the story which gentleman is meant to be the romantic lead. If he’s handsome, titled, and possibly brooding, that’s your guy. The simple Mr. gets to take a back seat unless the Lord is distinctly unsuitable (like old, or fat, or dull, or ugly, or married).

The fashion of the gentleman is another clue to his suitability. We can blame Beau Brummell for that one. Or thank him, as the case may be. This is an era where a bystander could tell a man’s tailor by the cut of his coat against his shoulders. Or so the Regency genre would have us believe. The fit of the coat gets mentioned an awful lot, along with whether or not the man’s Hessian boots are polished and how his cravat is tied. (Because apparently there are multiple variations for how to tie a cravat, and one receives greater status depending on how intricate and well executed the final result is.)

Variables to this Standard Regency Hero Template can be a breath of fresh air. Miles Calverleigh in Georgette Heyer’s Black Sheep, for example, doesn’t dress the part of a high-fashion gentleman because after two decades in India he doesn’t give a rip what Society thinks of him. His lack of fashion is as much a character trait for him as obsessive cravat-tying is for any other Regency hero, though.

Compare him to Julian St. John Audley, Earl of Worth from Heyer’s Regency Buck, who is a paragon of fashion without hardly trying. Worth carelessly makes up cravat styles that his fanboys immediately want to copy. He is not a dandy (heaven forbid!), but he gives such particular attention to his dress and grooming while projecting an air of indifference towards it because it’s fashionable to be fashionable while pretending not to care.

Calverleigh’s the better man in more ways than one, even if he is a mere Mr rather than a Lord. But they’re not in the same book vying for the same heroine, so it doesn’t matter.

Overdressed gentlemen, those dandies with their padded shoulders and multitude of seals and fobs, fall firmly into the “unsuitable” category. These are the uber-trendy characters, Regency hipsters perched on the cutting edge of fashion and executing it just a shade too severely for good taste. I’ve yet to read a Regency romance where an overdressed dandy plays the hero; they are typically an object of comic relief or outright scorn.

Crushing Debts and Incorrigible Rakes

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Yeah, Average, think of the children!

A number of literary tropes occur in the Regency genre, but I’m only going to hit on a couple of them in this post (as foreshadowed by today’s comic).

Trope #1: The Family in Penury

Regency novels typically focus on the English upper class and nobility. Money in those ranks meant everything. This was an extravagant era led by an extravagant man. (Seriously, Prinny’s debts were astronomical enough that Parliament had to intervene, and yet he still continued his profligate lifestyle.) For much of the ton, excess luxury was treated as necessity. The upper classes had to be seen as living like upper classes. Men and women alike sought to marry into fortunes. Estates were mortgaged to the hilt to maintain lavish lifestyles.

A family in penury was a family in disgrace. Jane Austen’s social commentary confirms as much: we see it reflected in Sir Walter Elliot’s disgust at retrenchment, in Mrs. Bennett’s despair at her daughters’ lack of dowry, in the Dashwood family’s quiet retreat to the countryside, in Fanny Price being deemed little better than a servant, in the natural contempt that Emma Woodhouse displays towards Miss Bates, in how quickly General Tilney ejects Catherine Morland from his home.

Finances are a running motif of the era. Thus, when you pick up a Regency romance, you can pretty much bet that someone in those pages is penniless and desperate to hide and/or correct that detestable condition.

For Regency England, money equals status even when the ruling figurehead is hundreds of thousands of pounds in debt and racking up even more by the minute.

Trope #2: The Heiress and the Rake

The morals of this era were ridiculously lopsided. Upper class women adhered to a strict, virginal code of conduct while men could choose a life of debauchery (following after Prinny’s debauched example, no doubt). There were rules, of course. Mistresses came from the middle or lower classes, often selected from the caste of actresses and dancing girls that entertained the elite in more ways than one, and the men who kept them earned reputations as rakes. Such reputations did not get them shunned from good society, though. (In contrast, a woman’s reputation once tarnished was destroyed forever.)

Regency romance rakes have two settings: wealthy or poor.

If the rake is wealthy, his indulgences are excused; often he will reform for the heroine; sometimes the reputation is “exaggerated” (i.e., the author pulls their punch at the end of the book, à la “See? He’s actually a nice guy who let everyone think the worst of him!”).

If the rake is poor, however, he’s a scheming cad out to hoodwink an heiress into marrying him. Sometimes the protagonist is the heiress. Sometimes she’s the guardian of the heiress. At all times, those in the know agree that the prospective match is a deplorable mistake.

Keep in mind that as the reader you are supposed to love the first type of rake and despise the second. No, it doesn’t make sense, but it’s part of the rules.

The many, many rules.