Tuesday, March 28, 2006

SB Day: The Importance of Being Witty in Historical Romance

“You must not laugh at me, darling, but it has always been a girlish dream of mine to love a man named Earnest.” ~Cecily, Act II, The Importance of Being Earnest.

“I'm always frank and earnest with women. Uh, in New York I'm Frank, and Chicago I'm Ernest.” ~Mitch Henessey (Samuel L. Jackson), The Long Kiss Goodnight

(Apologies. This would have been up last night, but I was distracted by friends, wine, and Wentworth Miller, and this girl is only so strong.)

I’ve seen the play, The Importance of Being Earnest, two or three times, and while I know that it was meant as Wilde’s “fuck you” to the aristocracy, I still find myself believing that a.) the play is about one act too long, and b.) I may one day kill one of the female characters. As I could not affect the length of the play or kill one of the actresses (that would be wrong), I let my mind go, and found myself contemplating Wilde’s legacy to Historical (read Regency, Victorian, etc) Romance.

And no, I’m not talking about how at the end of the play it’s revealed that Jack was not abandoned as a baby, but accidentally lost, and in reality is the older brother to his friend Algernon (and the son of a General), suddenly socially acceptable in all ways. We’ve all read the historical romance where the poor boy is suddenly discovered to have been a Duke or some member of the aristocracy all along (and has anyone else ever wondered how there are that many eligible young Dukes running around England unmarried? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?). Often this sudden discovery at the last minute has me cracking plaster by throwing my book against the wall. ‘Cause yeah? No. I don’t think so.

What I’m talking about is the use of dialogue and social manners that Wilde displays in Earnest. While he was obviously not the first to create a social manners play (we can follow those back to the beginning of the written word), he was one that adopted it to a time period frequently inhabited by Romances. Take a look at Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series, and you’ll see a melding of legacies. From Austen we received the beginning rapid-fire (yet socially correct) dialogue, but from Wilde comes the silly, the witty repartee verging on brainless that may in fact be imparting social commentary. Wilde let silly characters say brilliant things, but had the delivery in such an off-hand manner that these pronouncements never seemed out of character. Quinn and do the same with their characters, allowing fast dialogue to go from vapidness couched by societal norms to grow into plot development when the time is right. In skillful hands, the silly does not overwhelm but compliments the story, leaving you with a smile on your face long after its Happily Ever After.

And it must have a Happily Ever After. For as Wilde’s Miss Prism says, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”

Especially in Romance.


lady t said...

I've seen the current film version of Importance of Being Ernest(first saw it on a British Airways flight back to the US)and the offhandiness,I totally agree with you on. Of course,that movie had some weird moments(why they felt the need for Frances O'Connor's character to get a big ol' Ernest tattoo is beyond me) but the combo of Colin Firth and
Rupert Everett is sheer bliss.

Lisa Hunter said...

The banter of Cecily and Gwendolyn has merit as the first literary example of Frenemies -- supposed friends who can't stand each other and try to get in digs whenever they can get away with it. Also, what would the Pigeon sisters on the Odd Couple have done for first names without these literary forebears?

Kate R said...

[Kate stands up and claps]

Book Nerd said...

The ultimate master of the wittily brainless (or brainlessly witty?) has got to be P.G. Wodehouse. Everyone gets paired off romantically except our hero Bertie Wooster, and he's clearly a far inferior brain to the socially lower class Jeeves. But his constant blithering does produce some howlingly clever phrases.

Thank you for the Bueller reference, too. =)