My recent posts about Beau Brummell and Harriette Wilson (Part I and Part II) have made me think about the similarities between the two. Both were leaders within their particular social circles. (Yes, I know courtesans were not accepted in the haut ton but they lived the high life and had their own milieu, which included some of the wealthiest and most influential men of their times.)
From what I’ve read, I don’t get the impression that either was intentionally cruel by nature, yet they could be snarky, as in Brummell’s famous “Who’s your fat friend?” in reference to Prinny. Harriette says she didn’t think about hurting Lord Ponsonby’s young wife when she took up with him, and she enjoyed taking pokes at Wellington:
“My old beau, Wellington, is going on famously, thanks to the fineness of his nerves, and his want of feeling, and his excellent luck. I do not mean to say he has not a good notion of commanding an army; for, though I do not understand things, I am willing to take it for granted that this is the case.”
For a time, any gentleman aspiring to appear fashionable had to gain Brummell’s approval and enjoy Harriette’s favors. Both were the “cool kids” of their period. In the end, their fame didn’t save them from the consequences of their lifestyle. I think I’m not guilty of schadenfreude (a cool word I discovered recently that basically means enjoying the suffering of others) because ultimately, reading these books made me feel sad for them. But it did make me think about how being an “It” person was no guarantee of a happy ending.
Romance novels frequently acknowledge that. Heroes and heroines are often loners or wallflowers. Sometimes they have a more established spot in their local social circles, but even then, they’re generally not the mean sort who establish who’s in and who’s out. That is usually left to a minor class of villains.
One story I read stands in contrast: AIN’T SHE SWEET? by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. The heroine, Sugar Beth, was a bona fide mean girl before life roughed her up and changed her. Phillips did an amazing job getting under Sugar Beth’s skin. So much that I caught myself rooting for her, even though I’m exactly the sort of person she would have picked on in school.
What do you think about cliques and snarky characters in stories? Any that you’ve read that were done particularly well?