Thursday, January 21, 2010

Barbara Monajem's Notorious Eliza

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 na├»ve, 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


Mona Risk said...

Hurray for Eliza. She's a heroine I know I will enjot immensely. I don't know what Markham thinks about career women, but most of our modern heroines hold a job. This is one thing that didn't exist in the past. Your Eliza is very modern in that sense.

Barbara Monajem said...

Thanks, Mona. What you say is particularly true of Eliza. Women of the lower classes frequently had to work, whether in a family business, as servants, or by taking in washing or sewing, but a woman of the upper classes rarely chose a career as such. She would do so only if forced into it by circumstances -- so, for example, some women became governesses or paid companions. Eliza started painting courtesans as a paying occupation before her first husband died (she had an unusual husband who encouraged her!).

EmilyBryan said...

Barbara--I think the comfortable in her counsels means she knows what she believes and why. Her world view is established and she's ok with that.

Anita3 said...

I really enjoyed this. I plan to run out and get the book.

Barbara Monajem said...

Emily - Your interpretation makes a lot of sense. The ideal woman shouldn't be wishy-washy and confused! But being too settled in one's beliefs and understanding can have its disadvantages -- such as rigidity -- so I wonder whether or not that's really a good quality. Hmm... I guess it all depends. For example, being rigid in her prejudices, no; being firm in her support of tolerance, yes.

I guess you can tell I find this fascinating, LOL.

Barbara Monajem said...

Anita3 - Thanks for dropping by! I'm glad the story sounds appealing to you.

Toni V.S. said...

Most heroines in romance today are created along these same lines, though some may act imprudently in some cases. I especially love the regency ones where the woman are so outspoken and can match their men word-for-word in verbal duels.

Barbara Monajem said...

Toni - LOL, me, too re the outspoken historical ladies.

Christie Craig said...


Your book sounds wonderful. I love spunky heroines. They just go so well with macho heroes.


Barbara Monajem said...

Christie - How sweet of you to drop by. I love your books. In fact, my daughter and I have read all three of the Divorced, Desperate and... series and are now planning to buy your others.

Unknown said...

Eliza sounds like a winner!

The sketch of my ideal heroine is a bit more... pliable. She's a woman that I would be friends with and that covers a lot of ground.

Of course, that's not usually the kind that would hold her tongue, but it's been known to happen. *g*

Barbara Monajem said...

Saranna - I love your definition of a heroine. My favorite heroines are always the kind of people I would like to know. And they're usually pretty snarky!

Congrats on the contest win and contract. Woo-hoo!

Joyce Henderson said...

Love this topic, Barbara. I'm finding there's not a whole heck of a lot of difference in women's attitudes from one era to another. I think the secret women share in abundance is the ability adapt to whatever situation comes their way. At least, that's true of the heroines I read and root for.

Research takes us in so many fascinating directions, doesn't it?

Barbara Monajem said...

Heh. Research is a wonderful ride. You just never know what gems you'll uncover... I first found that quote from Markham in a book about food, which was a wonderful trip in itself.

Women are great not just at adapting, but at changing what we adapt to.

Janet Kay Gallagher said...

Hi barbara and all.
I think a lot of readers want a heroine to be bolder than they themselves are. taking risks, they would not take. Reading about scandal is different than being involved in one. We can get lost in a story and of course be the heroine without the after effects. Looks like your story found the right mix.

Barbara Monajem said...

Janet, you're so right. I want my heroines to have plenty of guts -- whether they're the ones I read or the ones I write. Vicarious risks have no consequences! I have to remind myself not to write heroines who react and behave like me, LOL. They have to do much, much better.

Linda Henderson said...

I find it fascinating that when you get right down to it, women haven't changed that much over the years. They are just more outspoken and less secretive about it now. Your book sounds great and I will definitely put it on my wish list.

Mary Marvella said...

Most excellent blog, Barbara. I think I'd like Eliza, too. I like women who express their opinions and are brave. I don't heroines who won't listen to professional cops and put the hero in danger by following them when told to stay put.

Linsey Lanier said...

Very insightful post, Barbara. You're right. It's tough to write a good heroine. She has to measure up to most of those standards and still be believable and realistic.

I don't think people expect so much of real life women nowadays. We're freer to just be human. :) I prefer a heroine with some attitude. Someone who might give Markham a run for his money.


Maxine Thompson said...

I love heroines who are women ahead of their time.

I know I'll enjoy Eliza.

Maxine Thompson
Author Hostage of Lies
Voted a Best Book of 2009
EDC Creations

librarypat said...

Sounds like an interesting story. As you have nicely pointed out, things haven't changed all that much. None of Markham's expectations were unreasonable and most were pretty good advice.
Good luck with your release.

Barbara Monajem said...

Linsey - Now, that's an idea. Wouldn't it be fun to write a historical where the hero writes a treatise about how women should behave? (I bet it's already been done, though.)

Maxine - I think it's hard for modern women NOT to write heroines that are ahead of their times, LOL. I have to try really hard sometimes to put myself in a mindset that's somewhere between then and now.

librarypat - Thanks very much. I wonder what a woman would have written about her expectations of a man?