Regency,  Research

Perfect Women

Regency folks in a cloakroom. A larger room than you'd think.

I didn’t mean to talk more about Harriet, Countess Granville’s letters, but this bit really spoke to me. She wrote this while she living in Paris, where her husband was serving as ambassador, complaining to her sister about a certain set of French women she dealt with in her duties as diplomatic hostess.

“…it is the woman made by Herbault, Victorine and Alexandre (dressmakers and a hairdresser), the woman who looks to see if you have six curls or five on the side of your head, the woman who talks, dictates, condescends and sneers at me—quos ego. It is odd that their effect upon me is to crush me with the sense of my inferiority whilst I am absolutely gasping with the sense of my superiority.”

I can so relate to this feeling! I know a few women like that, who always look perfect, who never have a tag sticking out, and who dominate every social situation. Even when I know their appearance of perfection is a sham (their relationships and family life are often a mess), they still somehow get to that nerdy kid inside me, the one their counterparts snubbed in high school. But like Harriet, I know that ultimately I’m happier than they are.

This is a classic theme in romance, going back at least as far as Jane Eyre versus Blanche Ingram. It works well, though the mousy but goodhearted governess versus the fashionable schemer has become a very common trope, verging on stereotyping. There’s no reason a heroine couldn’t have style and poise and a warm heart, too. An evil governess might make for an intriguing switch-up, too, come to think of it.

I also think it’s interesting when authors show sympathy for the character who puts so much effort into appearances. For one thing, it is probably exhausting. I suspect taking fashion so seriously would take a lot of the fun out of it! More importantly, why does she feel compelled to appear so powerful, so perfect? The answer could make her a more nuanced villain or even into a heroine, hiding trauma under a glamorous exterior. This is why I listed Melanthe (from For My Lady’s Heart by Laura Kinsale) as one of my favorite heroines in Carolyn’s recent quiz.
What do you think about “perfect” women in romance?  Who are some of the most interesting?

Cover of Perilous Journey by Gail Eastwood
Also, make sure to stop back next Sunday, when I will interview my good friend, the very talented Gail Eastwood, about the current and upcoming ebook reissues of her award-winning Regencies, starting with A Perilous Journey, available now on Nook and Kindle.

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10 years ago

I’ve seen this used twice recently, where the perfectly-dressed heroine is trying to overcome embarrassment, heartbreak, or something else: Connie Brockway’s The Golden Season and Kate Noble’s If I Fall. Eloisa James also used it in her Duchesses series.

Diane Gaston
10 years ago

I think Amanda will have something to say about the idea of taking fashion too seriously! One of the things I love about the TV show What Not To Wear is that they show women how to be fashionable without undue effort! To agonize over one’s appearance and to put oneself in competition with other women is a different story, though.

I quite like the idea of a beautiful/perfect heroine having her own difficulties in finding her HEA. I think beautiful women have a hard way to go in some areas. Men look at them as objects and women look at them as rivals.

Elena Greene
10 years ago

Anonymous, clearly I need to make more time to read.

Diane, I think Amanda knows what I mean about fashion being fun. I like WNTW, too. I’ve taken some of their fashion advice, but I’m also not going to worry about looking perfect every time I run out to the convenience store. Hopefully there are no hidden cameras trailing me!

Jane George
10 years ago

Ooh, evil governess WOULD make a fun switcheroo!

And ha, I can relate to Harriet. I knew a woman who wordlessly picked a cat hair off my sweater while we waited with our kids at the school bus stop. So much communicated in that little gesture, lol. But as you said, nobody’s perfect, and the insecurities that drive women to seek perfection can make for interesting characters.

Elena Greene
10 years ago

Jane, what a telling gesture. An how perfect that would be in a book!

10 years ago

As you said, many of the perfect women are either not happy or not very nice (or both). It is a lot of work to be perfect and you would have to have a very good reason for wanting to be that way.

I like the idea of the evil governess whether she is competing against the beautiful and nice heroine or just causing trouble.

Many, many years ago their was a woman we knew who was always perfectly turned out – hair, makeup, and clothes. You would figure she would have to have some “down time” but none of us ever saw it. Even when someone stopped by really early (we are talking 6 am or so) to pick up her husband for an early assignment, she would answer the door hair done, perfectly dressed, and her makeup complete down to eyeliner. She didn’t have a job to go to. She was a stay at home mom with young children. I don’t think I would bother with eye makeup to clean the bathrooms and make mud pies with my little ones. It was obviously the way she felt most comfortable and was happy. I don’t think she was doing it to impress anyone, but she certainly did. None of us could figure out how she managed it.

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