Guest post – In Search of the Elusive Happy Ending by Marguerite Kaye

I’m trilled to welcome Marguerite Kaye to the blog today to talk about the process of writing her recent release Rumors that Ruined a Lady (see my review here).  Take it away, Marguerite!

Hi there, and thank you so for having me along to chat about my latest release, Rumors that Ruined a Lady.

Caro, my heroine, is the fourth of five sisters, and she’s known as the ‘dutiful’ one – the one who has tried hard to conform, who’s done her best to be the person she was expected by her family to be. And where has it got her? Well, at the start of my book, she’s hit rock bottom, having fled a miserable marriage, been disowned by her father, and resorted to taking opium.

I had this opening scene in my head right from the start of writing Caro and Sebastian’s story. I was very clear that one of the things I wanted to write about was the conflict that arises from trying to mould your character into the form that others expect of you. We all do it, to a greater or lesser degree, because we want to please those we love (or think we ought to love!) – in particular, our parents. When we’re just gritting our teeth and doing minor stuff like paying duty visits to the aged relative with the smelly dog, there’s more positive than negative in doing our duty, but when it comes to bigger things – like, say, working in the family business, having kids (or not), staying at home to look after the kids (or not), and getting married – these are pretty thorny issues, and even today it takes conviction to rebel. So how much more difficult must it have been two hundred years ago, especially for women? It’s not surprising that Caro conforms and marries the man her father has chosen for her. What’s astonishing is that she has the courage to walk away from that marriage.

However, I didn’t want duty to be the only issue my heroine had to confront. One of the things I love about writing historicals is trying to address today’s problems in a historical context. I originally planned on being a lawyer, and studied Scots Law at university. Though I very quickly realised it wasn’t for me, I’ve never forgotten my outrage when I first discovered how incredibly biased the law was, and how relatively recent was the idea of blame-free divorce and separation. At university, when you’re young and pretty naïve, you think the cases you’re presented with are funny – I recall one case where the evidence of the wife’s adultery was a photo of her footprints on the windscreen of her lover’s car, and I remember much tittering in the lecture theatre when the term in flagrante delicto was introduced, and illustrated with a number of juicy cases where the couple were caught in the act. It’s only when you think about it, that you realise the couple concerned must really have been in extremis (to use another legal term) to pursue a divorce, and when you dig deeper into the law, you can see why. Marriage was a contract, and until relatively recently, it was constructed so that it was nigh-on impossible to escape.

Unfortunately, I didn’t think about the practicalities when I started writing Rumors that Ruined a Lady. It was only when I was well into the story and hurtling towards the happy ever after that I realised I’d put Caro and Sebastian in a situation where there might not be a happy ever after. In Romanceland, the hero and heroine finally realising they’re in love is usually the cue for the curtain to come down. In my story, it was the cue for Caro to exit stage left alone. Ripping the story apart and killing her husband off was my first idea. In fact, in one of my original plot-lines, Caro herself killed her husband. But that felt like cheating. I could get her a Parliamentary Divorce, but that was a very long and drawn out process (which I explain in the Historical Note in my book) and it wouldn’t necessarily free her up to marry Sebastian. It would also ostracize her from society. Think about the reaction in Britain to the ex-King, Edward VIII, marrying the divorcee Mrs Wallis Simpson in 1937. Less than a century ago, and they were still forced into exile. Imagine how it would have been two hundred years ago.

So I was on the horns of a dilemma. I could re-write my book, or I could remain true to my original ideas, which meant coming up with an unconventional happy ending. I’ll leave you to read the story, and find out for yourself which path I chose, but be reassured, there is a happy ending!

I finished Caro and Sebastian’s story feeling humbled. I’ve always believed I was a bit of a maverick, and I’ve had my fair share of guilt-ridden moments when I’ve fought against the tide of duty – I’m sure we all have. But would I have had the courage to fight my corner as Caro and Sebastian do, when the consequences of going against custom and convention, to say nothing of the law, were so hard-hitting? You know, I’d like to think so, but I’m not so sure.

Thank you for having me on your blog today and for allowing me to share some of my thoughts. I’m wondering, have I struck a chord? Do you like your historicals to address real, modern-day dilemmas? Does it matter that the happy ending is historically accurate or don’t you care? Do share your thoughts, I’d love to know.

Rumors that Ruined a Lady is out now, in print and digital, UK, US and Canada. You can read an excerpt of this and all my other books over on my website: http://www.margueritekaye.com.

Or why not just come and chat to me about books and life in general on my Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/margueritekayepage or on Twitter: @margueritekaye

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11 thoughts on “Guest post – In Search of the Elusive Happy Ending by Marguerite Kaye

  1. Thank you, Marguerite, for this post!

    I love how historicals have this power to be utterly subversive — because the popular conception of historical romance is either the bodice-ripper variety, full of dastardly heroes and the TSTL heroines who love them, or the light, regency romp variety, full of love matches and bluestockings and dashing rakes — and deal with real social issues in unexpected ways. The reality and depth of those situations is thrown into sharper relief by the juxtaposition of the genre.

    This is slightly off topic, but it makes me wonder if, a few years down the road (or now. Please let it be now!), savvy writers will start writing vaguely ironic billionaire romances that touch on issues of social and economic justice. That’s a billionaire story I’d like to read.

  2. like the idea, but I wonder how you’d make an ironic hero work and still keep true to the romance? I mean, it’s fine for him not to take himself seriously, but I don’t think that’s what you mean, and making the concept of him as a hero by implication, it seems to me, stops him from being a hero – or have I got that wrong? I do think there are lots of modern romances dealing with social issues and economic ones too, with heroes and heroines coming from much tougher backgrounds, and sometimes even set in far from glamorous inner city locations. But that’s also a problem, because we like our romance to be escapist, not to reflect what’s going on in the news. So maybe the answer is to stick to historicals, but to introduce more ‘reality’ – I could write a story set in Glasgow!!! But would anyone read it? I do have a rough, self-made Glasgow ship builder as the hero for the last of my Armstrong sisters’ stories though, coming out in May next year….

    • By ironic billionaire romance, I meant a story where perhaps the heroine is the billionaire or one where there is not such a disparity in wealth between the hero and heroine. Too often, the narrative of billionaire stories seems to presuppose a broad cultural fantasy of a hero as caretaker. I mean, think of the most obvious examples of the billionaire romance… it might not be a coincidence that in addition to the hero being in a position to take care of every material need the heroine might have, these heroes also demand that their heroines, many of whom are outrageously young, innocent, perhaps virginal, accept and embrace an almost ubiquitous bdsm lifestyle (and I’m not opposed to bdsm… it’s just that these stories often play at it without authentically portraying it), and often the hero’s proclivities are “cured” by the end (ugh). The billionaire romance narrative seems to me, then, to be one where the hero has all the agency and the heroine none (except, perhaps, feisty dialogue followed by swift and unreasoned capitulation). An ironic billionaire romance could show an H/h relationship where the heroine actually makes reasonable decisions to further her relationship with the hero based on more than just “ohmigod, he’s so hot!” Does that make sense? I would love to read a romance, historical or contemporary, set in Glasgow, and I’m looking forward to the final Armstrong sister book!

      • That makes a lot of sense, and I love it. I do think there’s a definite trend away from young and innocent heroines, though there will always be a demand for them because they are to ‘purely’ escapist. I don’t read bdsm, just not my thing and I find the power play difficult to accept – that’s just a personal thing. I think money is short-hand for power in romance too, though it is also often simply an escapist mechanism again – I used the example in a workshop, of flying off to the sun in a budget airline v flying off in a private jet! I think having a billionaire heroine, provided the hero was then at an economic disadvantage, has stacks of potential for playing with power in the other way, rather than taking it out of the equation by making him just as rich. The question wouldn’t just be, can the hero accept it, but could the reader. I wonder, as readers, whether we actually prefer our men to be in charge? As a feminist, a terrible thing to say, but I’m not sure I carry my feminist badge when I read romance. And that’s a whole other topic.

      • I certainly hope that none of us is required permanently to clutch her feminist badge to her bosom in order to claim the title. I get a kick out of locking mine in a drawer from time to time. (And I think that might be the most feminist thing of all, really, to give oneself the freedom to be or do whatever feels right at a given time, regardless of labels, cultural expectations, norms, etc.) But, as you say, that’s another post for another day. (I’m so tangential! Sorry!)

        Anyway, I was more than half asleep this morning when I first read this comment, and my brain meandered thusly: if there were a romance that featured a billionaire heroine, I doubt it would matter whether the hero also had comfortable wealth or was in constrained economic circumstances — I can’t even imagine the billionaire heroine doing crazy things with her wealth, such as buying a new wardrobe for the hero, purchasing him extravagant gifts as a “thank you” for sexual favors (I’m not kidding… that actually happened in the billionaire romance I finished last week), or manipulating situations so that the hero ends up working for the heroine so that he can be constantly accessible — and that story (billionaire heroine X falls in love with hero Y) might be a way to demonstrate some of the alarming (to me) elements of the standard billionaire romance. (Tangent: actually, now that I think of it, I have read one story where the heroine was a billionaire from a family business that she helped to run and the hero was a successful chocolatier in Paris. The heroine’s wealth was pretty much mentioned only as it related to her Americanism, and she was actually rather frugal, despite all that wealth. She certainly never bought him any extravagant gifts.)

        Now… I should clarify. I’m not sure that I would love romance as a genre if every book were like performance art — uncomfortable, like a pebble in your shoe that you just can’t ignore, but (eventually) instructive — but I celebrate those occasional books that come along and shed some light on things that we tend to take for granted and, perhaps, poke us into a better understanding of our culture.

        That’s why I’ve enjoyed and even loved the more conventional romances you’ve written (the ones I’ve read… I haven’t gone through the whole list yet) but I’ve been enthused (and I use that word deliberately) by the ones that have been a bit out of the box. From the unexpected ending of The Beauty Within to all of The Lady Who Broke the Rules (Tangent: I wonder if that one seemed so surprising to me because I’m an American, and race is such a hot issue here /tangent) to Rumors that Ruined a Lady, you’ve pushed different envelopes and asked important questions, all while managing to stay within the genre and to focus on the romance story you’re telling. To a reader like me, that is heady stuff, indeed.

  3. Hi Marguerite, Excellent post and I’m really glad to have found this blog. Thanks for flagging it up on FB. I’ve published just 2 historicals. One of the real issues about writing them is this business of remembering how it truly was. At my age, and I’m really not ancient, I can remember how any man who came into the corner shop was served immediately and before every child and almost every woman already queueing. A ridiculously small point perhaps, but one I feel that demonstrates how hard it is to defy cultural norms. I think the historical novelist does need to stick with them, though,because otherwise girls and young women may lose sight of what has been gained. It could so easily be taken away.
    It’s also true that men were under these pressures, too. Anne Stenhouse

  4. Watching Mad Men recently, which is set in the very early 1960s, I’ve been struck by how much we’ve changed in the last 50 years. It’s easy to laugh at the kind of things you mention Anne, and to dismiss as urban myth, the idea of a woman fretting about having her husband’s dinner on the table or changing into something pretty before he gets back from the office, but it’s made me think about how immeasurable the differences must have been 150-200 years ago. What if a woman opened her husband;s mail, or spoke to someone he said she should cut or did something he didn’t approve of. The consequences would have been truly huge. I think maybe we’re not making enough of that in our historicals.

    • Oh, I love this. One should never assume that I’m a reliable sample (focus group of one) of the general romance reading population — If I use Goodreads as unofficial empirical evidence, I’m definitely an outlier — but I hereby formally request more historical romances that pay homage (to some extent) to the huge gender politics changes that have occurred in the past two centuries. What is truly difficult, I would guess, is to incorporate an awareness of those changes without losing sight of the story.

      • Funnily enough, it’s the gender politics that I’m currently fascinated with. In the book I’ve just finished, my heroine has a sexual past and she’s not ashamed of it, nor is she ashamed of her sexuality. At least, that’s what she claims. Of course, what you say and how you really feel are often pretty different, and that’s one of the key issues that Unwed and Unrepentant (last of the Armstrongs books) tries to tackle, along with the whole why is it okay for a man to have a past and not a woman issue.

        My heroine also has a career, but on reflection I maybe didn’t make much of that one, so I’m filing it away for future thought. Currently I’m immersed in the 1920s and the impact of the WWI. If you want to look at gender conflict, here’s a perfect time, which is one of the things that fascinates me about the period, I’ve just bought Kate Adie’s book, Fighting on the Home Front, the Legacy of Women in WWI. I might be wrong, but it seems to me that the effect of the war on women was much more concentrated in the UK than in the US, and had a seriously profound effect, not just on the law and work and living conditions, but on the emotional psyche.

        You’re right though, the problem is balancing this political stuff with the romance, There’s some of it there in my WWI book (now I’m sounding like an advertisement) which is out next June, especially in the last story where the heroine finds that the world wants her to go back to her ‘place’ at the end of the war. For example, I’ve just finished Park Lane by Frances Osborne, and found myself disappointed that the politics (women’s suffrage movement before, during and after the War) got in the way of the romance I wanted, to the point where no happy ending was possible.

        Another blog post? This is such a huge subject.

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