I love it when an author researches not only how people lived, but how they thought in the past. Barbara Monajem, my guest today, did just that when she put together the bones for her new Harlequin Undone ebook, NOTORIOUS ELIZA.
Take it away, Barbara!
Patrick needs a respectable new wife to be a mother for his daughter.
Notorious Eliza paints nudes to support her young son.
They should resist the attraction. (They don’t.)
They dare not fall in love. (They do.)
They must not marry… for one day Eliza’s most scandalous secret will surface and destroy them all.
What makes a perfect wife? What makes a good heroine? And how has the concept of a perfect wife—or romantic heroine—changed in… oh, the last four hundred years? A while ago, I came across this quote from a book written by Gervase Markham in 1615.
“Your English housewife must be of chaste thought, stout courage, patient, untired, watchful, diligent, witty, pleasant, constant in friendship, full of good neighbourhood, wise in discourse, but not frequent therein, sharp and quick of speech, but not bitter or talkative, secret in her affairs, comfortable in her counsels, and generally skillful in all the worthy knowledges which do belong to her vocation.”
I started thinking about the heroine of my Undone, Notorious Eliza, who lived two hundred years later, in 1800, and how she measured up to this ideal… and how a modern heroine fares. Let’s look at all the characteristics mentioned by Markham. Admittedly, he’s probably a bit of a chauvinist—this was four hundred years ago, pretty much contemporary with The Taming of the Shrew. Women’s lib was far in the future, and the romantic heroine of today is generally a woman’s ideal, not a man’s. So we have what seems like two diametrically opposed points of view… And yet, when one looks closely (and takes Markham’s statement in the most positive light), the characteristics he describes are in many ways still valued today.
Courageous, patient, tireless, watchful, diligent: All positive qualities, then as now.
Constant in friendship, full of good neighborhood: A heroine is loyal to her friends. She’s a good, caring, helpful neighbor.
Witty, pleasant, wise in discourse, but not frequent therein. Sure; a heroine should be intelligent, pleasant, and wise (or develop those qualities), but who likes a woman (or man) who can’t shut up about her own opinions, regardless of how right she is?
Sharp and quick of speech, but not bitter or talkative: Hmm. Methinks he’s asking the impossible—a smart, witty woman who holds her tongue. Nowadays, we don’t expect women to keep their thoughts to themselves any more or less than men, but to some extent, Markham is spot on. Bitterness is a drag, and malicious gossip is unworthy of any heroine (or hero).
Secret in her affairs, comfortable in her counsels: Well, generally it’s a good idea to keep one’s private business just that… private. On the other hand, no modern day heroine would submit to abuse or fail to speak up against injustice. I’m not sure what “comfortable in her counsels” means. That she gives comforting advice? That she is confident in her beliefs? What do you think?
Generally skillful, etc.: Whether she’s a housewife or a rocket scientist, a heroine must be knowledgeable and competent.
Now, back to the beginning: Chaste thought.
I think this is where we diverge most from the values of the past… or do we? What got me thinking about this was that my heroine, Eliza, doesn’t measure up at first glance.
It’s well nigh impossible to think chastely when you support yourself and your young son by painting nude courtesans. Two hundred years ago, her occupation was considered shocking; now, not really. Some people might disapprove, but she wouldn’t be shunned by society as a whole.
Why is “of chaste thought” the first item on Markham’s list? I think it’s because it was believed that unchaste thought would lead to unchaste action. It certainly did with men… so Markham, and countless other men, felt the only safe woman was one who didn’t think about sex. It seems naïve, but that attitude still exists to some extent today. Romance novels are doing a lot to educate women that thinking about sex is just fine, but many women are uncomfortable about reading them or at least very reluctant to admit that they do—and that they enjoy them, too.
As for Eliza, despite her profession, she is chaste in action. She was faithful to her husband while he was alive. She waits five years before deciding to take a lover, and then she marries him. Sure, she’s a passionate woman who enjoys sex, and she makes that entirely clear. But between husband and wife, there’s nothing unchaste about enjoying making love, and there isn’t the slightest doubt in my mind that she will be faithful to her new husband.
So… I think Eliza does measure up. So do most of the romantic heroines I read about nowadays. In four hundred years, the ideal of a woman has changed in some ways, mostly for the better… but in other ways, it’s much the same.
What do you think?
Emily popping in here: I think NOTORIOUS ELIZA sounds like a great read! If you'd like to learn more about all of Barbara's work--and find some buy links!--please visit www.barbaramonajem.com