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A matter of honor
At Dunrobin Castle, researching a setting steeped in concepts of honor

There’s an interesting discussion going on at All About Romance about honor, particularly honorable heroes. I found it particularly inriguing, because honor is something Charles and Mélanie discuss a lot, especially in Secrets of a Lady.

I agree with Laurie of AAR that honorable behavior can be an extremely attractive quality (and make for a lot of dramatic tension). In the AAR discussion, I brought up Francis Crawford of Lymond as a particularly fascinating example because so many people (including those closest to him much of the time) think he’s being dishonorable, while all the while he’s usually acting from very honorable motives. I know a number of readers who gave up on The Game of Kings because they thought Lymond’s behavior was so despicable. My mom, who ended up loving the series, kept saying in the first book “he burned his mother’s castle.” Which of course, he does. But he has good reasons :-).

I also love stories about jaded characters who rediscover a sense of honor and idealism. Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Sheridan Drake in Laura Kinsale’s Seize the Fire, Rick Blaine (whose “hill of beans” speech to Ilsa at the end of Casablanca is pretty much a take on “I could not love thee, dear, so much, Lov’d I not honor more”). Damerel, in Georgette Heyer’s Venetia, is another jaded hero who rediscovers a sense of honor, which creates much of the romantic conflict. In the course of the book, Damerel’s intentions toward Veneita become honorable to the extent that only will he not seduce her, he thinks he’ll ruin her by marrying her. But I think one can argue that the confirmed rake Damerel has had a certain sense of honor all along. He has a wonderful exchange with Marston, his valet, which shows that he also behaves very honorably with Marston (he may lead him into scrapes, but he always rescues him, even at risk to himself).

Percy Blakeney is perhaps the epitome of the honorable hero, loyal to his friends, true to his word, driven to protect the weak. And yet his sense of honor also puts up barriers between him and Marguerite and makes it difficult to bridge the divide between them. I wished to test your love for me, and it did not bear the test, Marguerite says to him. You used to tell me that you drew the very breath of life but for me, and for love of me. To which Percy replies, And to probe that love, you demanded that I should forfeit mine honour,

In my own books, Charles struggles to behave honorably in a world he knows is far more gray than black and white. Perhaps I’m being a bloody idealistic fool, he says, but in this shifting sands of a world we live in, I’d like to believe my word at least counts for something. The hardest thing for him to get past when he learns the truth about Mélanie is that, in his words, You betrayed me, but in trusting you I betrayed my friends, my country, and any shred of honor I possessed. Mélanie realizes that However much Charles might reject the values of his world, his gentleman’s code of honor could make it impossible for him ever to forgive her for forcing him to break his word and betray his comrades.

And yet Charles does rethink is own conception of honor over the course of the book. It’s Mélanie who points out that The line between honor and dishonor is subject to definition. Quoting Shakespeare, she asks, What is honor? A word.

Which is the tricky thing about honor. Honor and honorable behavior mean different things to different people. Honor doesn’t just drive Francis Crawford, it drives the man who almost kills him. The insult to his friend Romeo’s honor drives Mercutio to his fatal fight with Tybalt. Rigid adherence to a code compels Inspector Javert to hunt down Jean Valjean, Ultimately when his code is too narrow to reconcile the debt he owes to Valjean for saving his life and his determination to bring Valjean to justice, he kills himself.

At the end of Secrets of a Lady, Charles has realized that Mélanie had …your own code before you met me. Mélanie says, that sounds suspiciously like ‘I could not love thee, dear, so much, Lov’d I not honor more. To which Charles replies An apt sentiment. He hasn’t given up his adherence to honor but he has broadened his definition.

In The Mask of Night, Mélanie asks him for his word that he won’t betray some of her former comrades. Charles gives it to her, but says Though I thought you were the one who claimed a word of honor was merely a word.

But a word you value highly, Mel replies.

Do you find honor a compelling quality in characters? Any interesting example of characters who are driven by honor for good or ill?

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Honour bound

Honour - being honest, keeping one's word, defending another's reputation, losing one's own because of debt - what an anachronism honour seems. An outmoded ideal. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for honour - it's an essential qualification for responsible membership of the human race - but anyone espousing honour today is swimming against the undertow. Western society as a whole pays little homage to honour. Even lipservice has become somewhat muted. It just seems plain daft to fight a potentially fatal duel when someone has merely challenged your word or mouthed off about your nearest and dearest. What were our ancestors thinking of?! Nothing less, I think, than the cornerstones of civilisation. They had grasped the truth that without a sense of honour, civilisation breaks down, governments resort to shoddy expedients, officials remain in office when their dealings are questionable, prosperity is mounted upon debt, making money becomes the sole objective and the poorest and weakest are accepted casualties. (Maybe it's not unconnected that mankind is floundering in its own unrecyclable debris.)

No one would want to return to the days when witch-hunts and blackmail were openly rife. And there is nothing worse than a cloying self-righteous morality. But there is a price to be paid for honour. It hurts. Heroes and heroines who embrace these virtues have to be seen either to have fallen short themselves, or to have sacrificed something precious if they're to enlist our sympathy. Otherwise, no story.

I'm often astonished by the overwhelming resurgence of interest in Jane Austen. The rhythms of her prose are magnetic, but what can she, of all writers, possibly have to say to an era still struggling with the aftermath of two World Wars? Perhaps it's because deep down we're longing to have those yardsticks of honour restored. We're longing to have confidence in a Greater Good to which everyone subscribes.

Of course, the 'truth universally acknowledged' today could merely be Miss Austen's common-sense materialism!


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It’s Mélanie who points

It’s Mélanie who points out that The line between honor and dishonor is subject to definition. Quoting Shakespeare, she asks, What is honor? A word.

Which is the tricky thing about honor. Honor and honorable behavior mean different things to different people.

So, so true.  Outside the literary realm, there are crimes called "honor" killings.  I work on them: 


Of course, there is nothing the least bit honorable about them.

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Thanks for the thoughtful

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Rosy and Ellen. I think that Shakespeare quote sums it up beautifully--honor is a word, a word that can used to represent everything from behavior in the service of the greater good to destructive acts of violence. At it's best, it can reinforce personal integrity and civilized behavior. But rigid adherence to a code of honor can prevent someone from seeing the bigger picture.  My honors thesis was called “In Honour Bound: the Twilight of the Chivalric Paradigm.” In the late fifteenth century, when the medieval age was giving way to the Renaissance, many aristocrats clung to the rules of the chivalric world, even as the ground was changing beneath their feet.

As to Austen, though she clearly values honorable behavior (keeping one's word--only contrast Edward and Willioughby in "Sense & Sensibility), I see her as quite a clear-eyed realist. Patricularly when it comes to the intersection of the need for financial security and the demands of the heart. For me, the issues in her books have a lot of resonance today.