Deconstructing Gwen

14 May

WARNING! There are spoilers here for all four Royal Sorceress novels, including Sons Of Liberty. Read at your own risk.

Looking at Disney’s Mulan, I was struck by just how well the movie represented the twin faces of oppression facing young girls, both in China and other time periods; Regency England, for example. On one hand, we have the menfolk automatically dismissing the womenfolk as little more than property; fathers married their daughters off to best advantage, rather than for love. And it was devoutly hoped that their daughters would bear sons. The birth of a boy to carry on the family name was celebrated; the birth of a girl, who would leave the household once she was old enough to marry, was hardly worth mentioning. This was open, overt sexism.

But there was another angle. The main enforcers of aristocratic gender roles were rarely husbands and fathers, but mothers and mothers-in-law. These were women who were winners, by the standard of the time; the ones who set the rules for everyone else, everything from what clothes were in fashion to how courtships should be carried out. Young women who were growing into adulthood were expected to be guided by their elders, who would react very badly against women who bucked the trend and sought their own paths. As always in such societies, control of female sexuality was important; women who had sex before marriage, or outside marriage, were ostracized, even though their male counterparts rarely received more than a slap on the wrist. Indeed, as in many other ‘honour cultures,’ female ‘misbehaviour’ had to be harshly punished. It was the only way to restore the family’s honour.

[This is why, in Pride and Prejudice, everyone is so relieved when Lydia marries Wickham, who she eloped with. It gave the whole affair a legitimate gloss, instead of disgracing the family so badly that Lydia’s sisters wouldn’t have a hope of finding suitors themselves. And yet, by our standards, this is appalling.]

Women were not expected to look after themselves, either. The idea of an aristocratic woman actually fighting was absurd. (Men generally believed that women needed to be protected from Bad Things, seemingly unaware that women were often the victims of said Bad Things.) Women in Regency England knew the rules – a slap would warn a man that he’d gone too far, a scream would bring other men to assist – but they also knew they weren’t meant to fight themselves. Defending their virtue was a task best left to the men. Is it any surprise that women in these societies were regarded as property? Indeed, unless the bridal agreement made specific provision for it, everything that came with a woman when she married became the property of her husband.

It was into this world, an alternate Regency England, that Lady Gwendolyn (Gwen) Crichton was born.

Gwen was the second child of Lord Rudolf Crichton, an aristocrat who made money in trade (not something he would necessarily have been applauded for) before becoming the Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Her mother, Lady Mary did her duty as an aristocratic woman by giving birth to two legitimate children – David Crichton and Gwen. It should be noted that there are actually eight years between David and Gwen – Lord Rudolf believed, originally, that there was little to be gained by trying for a second child. A prospective second son would not have inherited much until Lord Rudolf became quite successful in trade (among other things, building airships.) Much of the family’s wealth was quite thoroughly entailed and would go to the firstborn son.

Gwen’s early life was shaped, at least in part, by maids rather than her parents. Like most aristocrats, Rudolf and Mary had a number of servants living in their house and they were the ones who raised Gwen from babyhood to childhood. Mary did, of course, spend time with her daughter, but not as much as might be expected. (This was perfectly normal in the aristocracy; indeed, at this point, David would have been sent off to boarding school.) Gwen would have been groomed for eventual marriage to someone her parents chose, more for their benefit than for hers. Her introduction to the ton would have marked the start of her parents quest for a suitable husband.

Matters didn’t work out as her parents expected. Gwen manifested magic at a fairly young age, using it so blatantly that there was no hope of suppressing the scandal. Young women with magic were expected to refrain from using it, although it wasn’t uncommon for families to find ways to covertly use their talents. Gwen was marked out as something special, even though most people knew nothing about Master Magicians. Her magic made her unmarriageable. Young girls her age heard the rumours and were frightened of her. It was the start of a long period of isolation.

It is to Rudolf and Mary’s credit that they didn’t simply abandon or lock up their magician daughter. Gwen was home-schooled (like most young girls of her class) by a number of tutors, few of whom stayed very long. The servants were scared of her; even her parents, despite having given birth to Gwen, wanted little to do with their daughter. David was less scared of her, but because he was considerably older he couldn’t be the playmate she wanted.

This isolation, from both the accepted role of a young woman and the use of her magic, spurred a forceful personality. Gwen experimented with her magic despite her parents forbidding her to use it. She wanted – needed – to find a place for herself, so she thrilled to the stories of magicians in combat and prayed for a chance to join them. This was, of course, thoroughly unladylike by the standards of her time. Her magic ensured that she would never be considered truly respectable.

As an aside, the true nature of the original Irene Adler’s victory over Sherlock Holmes makes perfect sense in context. Irene didn’t just want to get the King of Bohemia off her back, although that was obviously necessary. Irene wanted to regain her respectability as a married woman. This may make little sense to us, but by the standards of the time an opera singer and a former king’s mistress would be far from respectable. Marrying Geoffrey Norton gave her respectability as well as creating a MAD-scenario that would ensure she, as well as the king, had something to lose if she talked.

But as she turned sixteen, Gwen found herself coming to grips with the fact she would probably never be truly independent, let alone meet the social expectations of her class. Her behaviour grew worse, she pushed against her tutors out of growing bitterness at the hand life had dealt her. She knew she was smart, she knew she was capable … and yet she was denied a chance to shine, denied even the traditional role of a women. By the time Lord Mycroft and Master Thomas made the decision to recruit her – they knew what she was, even if she didn’t – she was reaching the end of her tether.

Gwen leapt at the chance to train under Master Thomas. The frustration of her previous life wouldn’t have allowed her to do anything else. Her natural intelligence and genuine aptitude for magic pushed her forward. Given a chance to shine, she was damned if she was going to do anything else. She was not going to let any of the junior (male) magicians deter her from doing her very best, particularly as she knew she was unique. Gwen is unquestionably both brave and ambitious.

And yet, she was also naive and sheltered. Her introduction to the seedier side of London – both from Master Thomas and Jack – shocked her. She found herself uneasily sympathetic with the rebels (because she’d been mistreated herself) and yet reluctant to throw her lot in completely with Jack. Unlike most young girls of her class – and young men too – she regarded the working classes as human, yet she also had that insight about the high-ranking aristocracy. Caught between two extremes, she had the courage to stand up and propose a compromise that prevented greater bloodshed – it helped that Master Thomas had broken his oaths so spectacularly – and then succeed him as the Royal Sorceress.

It was her own experiences that prompted her to adopt Olivia. Gwen knew what it was like to be looked down upon, or be regarded with fear, because one possessed dangerous magic. She wasn’t blind to the dangers of allowing a necromancer to live, but she didn’t see possessing such magic as a good reason to kill a young girl. Adopting Olivia made it harder for her to be killed out of hand by the government. Gwen was less able to be friendly, though; her inexperience of being a mother (she had a poor role model, by our standards) made it harder for her to approach the younger girl.

It was not an easy role to assume. Gwen was both young and female; Master Thomas might have known where the bodies were buried, but she didn’t. Many of Master Thomas’s political enemies assumed that his death was a chance to take power for themselves, altering the balance of power that dominated the Royal Sorcerers Corps. It was hard for them to take a young girl seriously, even if she was a Master Magician. Gwen was driven forward by the urge to prove herself as well as secure her power base, perhaps pushing herself too hard. It actually weakened her, in some respects, as she kept uncovering more and more secrets.

The discovery that her mother had committed adultery – and then had an abortion, a far more hazardous exercise in those days – made Gwen angry, rather than shocked. Lady Mary had acted like a perfect aristocrat for so long, keeping Gwen firmly under control; the discovery that her mother was a hypocrite was infuriating. Her anger propelled her into Sir Charles’s arms, awakening her sexuality as they made out for the first time. This, unfortunately, was at least partly an attempt by Sir Charles to manipulate her. By showing that he was not scared of her – and not inclined to try to usurp her power – he wormed his way into her heart, but he was planning to betray her. Gwen was distracted long enough to miss the clues that he was the murderer she was searching for; luckily, she caught on before it was too late.

Her upbringing does give her some unusual strengths. She has little trouble in posing as a maid, despite having to cope with a barrage of orders from her ‘mistress.’ (And the ever-present risk of starvations, beatings or sexual assault.) And yet, the experience of being a maid gave her some eye-opening insights into their lives. Anything bad that happened to a maid would be considered their fault. (Sir Sidney claimed to have kissed Gwen, but Lady Standish still blamed it on her ‘maid’.) By the time Gwen returned to London, she was privately committed to social reform.

Gwen’s great weakness, alas, is one she can’t help. She is not just a woman in a male-dominated world, but a woman with power. Her position is odd; she cannot claim the status of a ruling queen (like Elizabeth), yet she can fight on her own. And this is not enough to keep men from trying to take decisions for her, decisions they think she would have made if she were not hampered by her sex. She has no doubt that she would be replaced, if another suitable magician appeared; this drives her to prove herself, which sometimes leads to foolish or dangerous behaviour.

And yet, in many ways, she is still the daughter of the aristocracy.

She wasn’t expecting to find herself making love to Bruce, when they met openly for the first time. That was at least partly the result of their powers interacting, something that had never happened before. (She was attracted to Jack, back in the first book, but they never had time to start a relationship.) She had no way to anticipate the surge of emotion, yet the aftermath forced her to come to terms with what they’d done. It was possible that she would become pregnant, presenting her with the same dilemma that had faced Lady Mary. Keep the child, knowing that it would make her a social pariah, or do something to get rid of it.

An upper-class girl becoming pregnant out of wedlock would be a major scandal in Gregorian England. While young men had considerable sexual licence – George III and William IV both had illegitimate children – there could be no doubt over the paternity of a wife’s child. (This is why female adultery was considered far more serious than male adultery.) Gwen dared not become pregnant without being married – but she had already gone too far to avoid the danger. She needed to come up with a way to marry Bruce, if necessary, that would ensure their child would have a legitimate father.

Her solution, by our standards, was cold-hearted. She had already laid the bones of an agreement between the Sons of Liberty and the British Government. Her proposal to Bruce would solidify it, ensuring there was a blood-tie binding the factions together. (And providing an excuse to marry quickly, if necessary.) It would also have the added benefit of linking a second Master Magician, who was desperately needed, to the Royal Sorcerers Corps. Bruce considered the advantages and disadvantages, then agreed.

She had the advantage, to be fair, that Bruce was not entirely aristocratic in outlook, despite his father. He was not inclined to be insistent on a tough marriage contract – one that would have made Gwen his property or given him rights over her possessions. And he was just as unwilling as her, for different reasons, to abandon an unborn child. (Bruce is descended from William Franklin, who was himself the illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin.) His father agreed to the match quite quickly, once he got over the shock.

Being married is one thing all women of that era were expected to do. But for Gwen, it’s only part of her life. The remainder is very different.

3 Responses to “Deconstructing Gwen”

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard May 14, 2016 at 10:57 pm #

    One “nit” on the “women shouldn’t fight”, IMO that’s more for the protection of women than anything else.

    A man in Gwen’s society who put a woman in a position that she had to fight would be seen as being in the wrong. Note, this would hold true in any “good” society as only fools would believe that male vs female is a fair fight.

    Gwen has magical power so is on more equal footing against other magicians than the average woman would be against the average man.

    Now, the lack of “power” in other areas for a woman in Gwen’s society is a different matter. 😉

  2. Jacqueline Harris June 5, 2016 at 5:11 am #

    Snap I read the first book and I didn’t realize that Chris had wrote this one as well!

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