Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Case of the Disappearing Dukes

I love historical romances, especially the sorts of stories in which the high-and-mighty English lord of the manor finally meets his match in the person of a woman he can’t force to behave the way he wants her to. The fabulously wealthy and handsome Duke of So-and-so versus the Regency miss or the Victorian lady. And she always wins. I must say, though, that one thing has always perplexed me - what happened to his father?

Think of it. The duke only becomes the duke when the male who previously owned the title, normally the new duke’s father, dies. Our heroes are most often in their thirties and are seldom over forty. In the usual way of things, that would make their fathers not much over sixty. If you’re twenty-one, sixty-two can seem really old. I happen to be that exact age and plan to hang on for several more years, thank you very much. So, what’s killing all these older dukes and earls?

“But, Alice,” you say, “the life expectancy back then wasn’t what it is today. We live much longer now.” Yes and no. The life expectancy, or the average age at which people die, has gotten longer over the years. However, that statistic can be wildly skewed in societies with high infant mortality rates. If half the people born die in early childhood, those numbers will drag the average down. Even if life expectancy is thirty-five, plenty of people will still live to old age. The life span - the longest time people live on Earth- hasn’t changed much over the generations.

Plus, the English nobility had better nutrition, medical care, and overall quality of life than working people or the poor, especially during industrial periods when the London smog could literally kill people. They could escape to their country homes while the urban poor suffered the effects of the industrial revolution. Given all this, isn’t it a bit odd to expect to find dashing, young noblemen everywhere? And yet, that’s the sort of book many of us, like me, enjoy reading and writing.

When I first invented Philip Rosemont, Viscount Wesley, heir to the Earl of Farnham, I decided to make his parents characters in the book (Always a Princess, a Carina August release). In fact, his mother, Lady Farnham is one of my very favorite secondary characters ever. I didn’t see any reason to make them disagreeable, so they all get along pretty well, except for the fact that Philip refuses to settle down and provide an heir. Philip’s a world traveler and only uses his parent’s house on Hyde Park as a pied à terre. All this has made him a mama’s boy to some people. To me, he’s a delightful and sexy scoundrel who steals jewels for fun until he meets the one person he can’t control and can’t live without, my heroine, Eve Stanhope. If you read the book, let me know what you think.

Another oddity of our beloved books is what I think of as nobility inflation. The more we write, the higher in status our heroes become. Viscounts are okay, but earls and dukes are much better. I believe we’d write men from the royal family except for the fact that these characters would be easily identifiable as real people. These days, who would write a book with a lowly mister as hero? Alas, poor Mr. Rochester. Even the elevated Mr. Darcy is only related to Lady Catherine De Bourgh, and does anyone really know where she stands in the social register?

If you read English historical romances, you’d think that you only need to step off the boat to stumble over some nobleman or other. In reality, most people who live in England have very little, if any, contact with the nobility. I have this on authority from an English friend and another friend originally from Germany who’s lived in England for many years. In fact, my English friend served as a consultant on another historical romance I wrote, and she didn’t pick up the fact that I’d called the second son of a duke Lord Claridge, when he should have been Lord Will.

So, we’re not writing realism. Quelle surprise. I don’t really care. Reality often s**ks. I prefer romance. I believe that at some point, you have to go with Mystery Science Theatre:
If you wonder how they eat and breathe
And other science facts,
Just remember it’s a story.
You should really just relax.


Taryn Kincaid said...

I lean toward viscounts myself! LOL! In HEALING HEARTS, Adam's father, the earl, is still alive!

Claire Robyns said...

You know, I never really thought about the dead dukes, lol. Now I will in every English historical I read. Usually the only relation around for our grand hero is a busybody aunt or dowager mother... I like the idea of having the father around.

Wendy Soliman said...

I sometimes feature one or both parents in my books but bear in mind that although the nobility ate better they also tended to have accidents of the hunting/shooting variety. They also tended to, unpleasant diseases that weren't easily treatable back then.

Taryn Kincaid said...

According to Google, average lifespan in Victorian England was 40.

Susanna Fraser said...

I'd noticed the dead dukes, but I figure it's just like how fairytale heroines run to orphaned or at least motherless--a lot of narratives work better that way.

Reina said...

Good post, Alice. Is this the older woman book, or a different historical? (And congrats, btw). I happen to like lowly misters. ;) The heroes in my Regencies don't have titles, not a one. :)(Though at least one of their relatives always does.)