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?
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.