Men in Black (or Not)

By ELOISA JAMES

A movie based on my romances could never be called Men in Black: think Men in Tights. I could as easily sum up my heroes as Men with Coronets, because I start out with a few givens: my heroes are rich, titled and born in the 1700s, when men wore breeches and hose as a matter of course.

In fact, tights aren?t the heart of my fantasy — but money and birth? Definitely. My current series is called Desperate Duchesses, and both the adjective and the title fit all my heroines. Before you label me a class-bound twit, let me note that I grew up on a farm in Minnesota, and my senior prom party was held in a gravel pit. In other words, I come by my ducal fantasies honestly.

Rich dukes aren?t the only model in romance: the self-made man is equally popular. Historical or contemporary, he strides onto the scene with a raw, brute confidence that comes from earning it all himself. What I hadn?t realized until writing this column is how many of those self-made men are given a double whammy by their authors: they begin poor and illegitimate, the dead reverse of my rich dukes.

Lisa Kleypas?s Blue-Eyed Devil, just out this month, is a brilliant example. Hardy Cates has the “insolent, loose-jointed slouch of someone who?d rather spend his time in a pool hall?a good ol? boy, able to hunt, play football and poker, and hold his liquor.” Hardy grew up in an aluminum ghetto: a Texas trailer park. Blue-Eyed Devil is complex, and exquisitely delicate in its treatment of the heroine?s first marriage. But Hardy?s “world-class pheromones,” in the heroine?s words, make this novel a true delight. The key to those pheromones? His anti-duke-ness. “I?m not a gentleman?I can?t get you into bed with fancy words or nice manners. All I can tell you is that I want you more than I?ve ever wanted a woman. I?d break any law to have you.” Kleypas carries the same rubric into the Victorian period. Derek Craven, hero of her Dreaming of You, is the king of his gambling den, born in a rookery, abandoned in the street, raised by whores, nursed on gin. Sara Fielding is instantly fascinated: “In spite of his expensive attire, no one would ever mistake Derek Craven for a gentleman.”

The allure of the anti-duke hero is crucially tied to his aura of danger — and that fact determines the nature of the heroine. Someone who grew up in a trailer park herself isn?t going to feel the zing. But as she runs away, a well-bred heroine eagerly steps forward. The hero of Deborah Smith?s A Place to Call Home is a southern version of Derek Craven. Roan Sullivan grew up in a rusted-out trailer in a lot full of junked cars with an abusive, alcoholic father. As a little girl Claire Maloney broke sides with the well-bred, rich folks of Dunderry, Georgia to defend ten-year-old Roan, even though he “was the kind of boy who fought and cussed and put a knife to people?s throats. He caused trouble. He deserved trouble.” The couple meets as children, but the essential ingredients are already there: “Roanie was not just trashy, not just different, he was dangerous?I was fascinated by him from then on.”

In historical periods, the equivalent of a Texas single-wide is illegitimacy, the accident of birth that made a man (or woman) utterly unacceptable as a spouse. That?s the whole point — these men take their confidence and swagger and turn it into the allure of the unlawful, creating, in the words of Kleypas?s Sara, “a spark of unthinkable fascination?as if she were poised at the doorway of a forbidden world.” The problem for historical writers is that this world is forbidden for ladies. So how to bring the couple together — and still have the heroine able to pay a visit home on weekends?

A forced marriage offers the classic solution. Julie Garwood?s Prince Charming opens in England in 1868, when Lucas Ross, an American rancher, agrees to marry in exchange for his half-brother?s freedom. He?s a rough and tumble, illegitimate American rancher; Taylor Stapleton is a lady. But she?s addicted to stories about Daniel Boone, so when she meets Lucas, she hasn?t a chance: “He didn?t look like the sort who laughed much. He didn?t appear to be the kind of man you?d want to meet up with on a dark, deserted corner either or spend the rest of your life with?It was as if he?d stepped out of one of her dime novels.”

Madeline Hunter?s By Arrangement throws Lady Christina Fitzwaryn into a sudden marriage with a merchant, David de Abyndon. Class divisions are always present in anti-duke novels, but Hunter pushes the conflict into the open. Christina is shocked to find that her future husband offers her no respect based on their different degrees: “There was absolutely no deference in this man.” Unlike Taylor Stapleton, whose addiction to fiction makes falling in love with an American mountain man an easy task, Christina cannot see outside her class assumptions. She keeps referring to “you people,” a comment her husband doesn?t appreciate. But by the end of the novel, when David stands between her and rampaging hoards of so-called knights, Christina knows precisely the worth of true nobility.

Laura Kinsale has a tendency to take a classic plot and pressure its contours. In The Shadow and the Star, her hero had a particularly terrible childhood; he?s now wealthy and a master of eastern arts of defense. In many of these novels, a gentleman is revealed as the true scoundrel, and the anti-dukes are nobler than their counterparts. Here, however, Samuel Gerard seduces Leda and then refuses to marry her (the marriage is forced on him). Kinsale takes into the open the schisms that result from the anti-duke?s disregard for polite society. There?s a huge satisfaction in seeing Samuel fall in love, particularly because he remains true to his nature. At the end of the book, when Leda declares that if she “were not a person of character,” she would have left him, he erupts: “You?ve lost your chance to go.” He?s no gentleman: he?ll keep Leda no matter what she, and the rest of the world, thinks.

Hunter?s upcoming June novel, Secrets of Surrender, similarly uses class warfare as the pivotal clash between a married couple. Roselyn Longworth finds herself at a house party, auctioned off to the highest bidder — who turns out to be not one of the drunken noblemen in the room, but a land developer invited at the last moment. A forced marriage follows, agreed to by Kyle Bradwell only after calculated thought about his future children: “The hell of it was that one?s blood mattered.” The key ingredient of an anti-duke is his ability to fight, and his disregard for polite society?s rules. One of the book?s most satisfying scenes is when Kyle beats into smithereens the villain who held the auction. There?s a distinct sense in these novels that it takes a real man — not a duke — to keep a woman safe. As Hardy Cates says when he?s planning to beat up the heroine?s first husband, “The way I was brought up, ?he needed killing? is an airtight legal defense.”

Men in Black presented a brilliant pair of anti-duke heroes who saved the universe by operating outside the rules of normal society. Anti-duke romances tap the same counter-cultural strain, basing their appeal on a view of society in which the roughnecks turn out to be noble and, all too often, the true ruffians are hiding behind their coronets and tights.

If you have a fondness for ruffians (or dukes), please join us in the Romantic Reads book club for a discussion of all things heroic! Lisa Kleypas (author of Blue-Eyed Devil) and Madeline Hunter (author of By Arrangement) will visit the book club on April 21st and 23rd to discuss their heroes, past and present. Stop in, ask a question or two, and stay to chat.

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