Anne here. As regular readers of this blog know, there have been shifts and changes in the Word Wench line-up over the last few months, as first Loretta, then Edith, then Susan Holloway Scott decided to concentrate on their books and become Wenches Emeritae, still part of the community, but only blogging occasionally, rather than every fortnight.
Andrea Pickens has already joined us as a part timer (a demi-wench?) and we've had another Honorary Word Wench poised on the slip-rails for some time, shrouded in mystery and waiting to be launched as a regular Word Wench on June 5th. And I've been poised to crack a large bottle of champagne over her head, make a small speech and shove her into the water. ;)
Edith's death has devastated us all, but one of our last joint decisions with her was to invite Nicola Cornick to become our newest wench, and we, as a group, feel very sure that Edith would want us to go ahead with Nicola's planned launch date, and do it joyfully and with celebrations.
So please join us in welcoming Nicola Cornick. Nicola has been interviewed here before and has blogged as a guest. She's a talented, popular and prolific author and, living in England, she ensures that we're now even more global. Welcome Nicola!
Thank you to Anne for such a moving, gracious (and damp?!) introduction and to all the Word Wenches for a very warm welcome indeed. It is a huge privilege to be invited to join the ranks of the Word Wenches and I am honoured to be here and will do my very best to uphold the traditions that Edith and all the other Wenches have established with such wit and charm.
I write Regency-set historicals and this month sees the launch of my new series, the Brides of Fortune. The heroine of the first book in the series, The Confessions of a Duchess, is Laura Cole, dowager duchess and former highwaywoman. Laura’s adventures began back in my previous book, Unmasked, when she was one of the leaders of the Glory Girls, a band of outlaws who worked to protect the poor and the weak against the injustices of society. Whilst I was writing Unmasked I was prompted to wonder what exactly is the appeal of the outlaw hero – or heroine – not just in fiction but why is it so deeply rooted in myth and legend? Are these characters criminals and as such can their exploits never be justified? Or do they represent some primal desire within us all for justice and equity?
There is a new film of the Robin Hood legend currently in the making, featuring Russell Crowe as Robin and with the new twist that the Sheriff of Nottingham is one of the good guys. At the same time the BBC drama of the same name is in its third series, much of its appeal deriving from a young and good looking cast and a rather knowing, deliberate use of anachronism! But why is this outlaw so popular? Robin and his Merry Men are legendary characters but they are the most sympathetic outlaws in history.
The earliest folk tales about Robin Hood date from the 13th century. Famous for stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, Robin has been variously depicted as a commoner or as a dispossessed nobleman, Robin of Loxley. The original tales of his activities place him in Yorkshire but by the 16th century he had moved to Nottinghamshire and taken up residence with his Merry Men (and Maid Marian, a 16th century love interest addition) in Sherwood Forest. It is in the ballad-style narratives of the 15th and 16th Centuries that Robin’s story really takes shape. In these tales most of the present-day legend is already in place. We have Robin’s dedication to protecting the poor and needy, his brilliant skill as an archer and his dislike of corrupt authority.
There are some very appealing elements to the Robin Hood legend. The camaraderie, the idea of rebellion against a corrupt society, the romance and the timeless theme of good versus evil are all very attractive ideas. And in the current economic climate of recession, the Robin Hood legend also resonates with people. In a BBC interview Thomas Hahn, professor of English at Rochester University commented that the character’s popularity had long represented people’s frustrations with life in a capitalist society. Although the legend is medieval in origin his contention is that “it is a fantasy broad and deep enough to possess the imaginations of people in almost all times and places.”
It is interesting that the popularity of the Robin Hood legend blossomed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a time of capitalist enterprise. One outlaw theme that developed later, during the Regency era, was that of the pirate. Lord Byron had a great deal to do with promoting the cult of the pirate as hero. His poem The Corsair was published in the summer of 1814 and was immediately interpreted by an eager public as a smouldering, piratical self-portrait. When taken in combination with a painting of Byron sporting an exotic headscarf and cutlass, the poem added yet another fantasy element that fed Byron’s celebrity status.
Ten thousand copies of The Corsair were sold on the day of publication. Byron had based his story on tales of Barbary pirates who sailed the Mediterranean and Aegean kidnapping men and women to sell as slaves. He idealised his hero, Conrad, as “a man of loneliness and mystery.” In effect his poem was a wildly romantic fantasy on the brutal reality of pirating but it caught the public imagination. Like the Robin Hood legend, the cult of the pirate changed and grew through the following decades and centuries. There were five different ballets inspired by Byron’s poem between 1826 and 1856. The corsair cult spread to other arts and like the Robin Hood legend, was transformed again with the birth of the movie industry.
Arguably Robin Hood was the first footpad or highwayman. The idea of a nobleman fallen from grace, the protector of the poor and weak who is up against an oppressive regime is a very powerful one. There is a real gap between reality and fantasy here. In reality highway robbery was violent, dangerous and criminal but in the public imagination it is romanticised and glamorous. The highwayman is seen as dashing and likeable, a rogue with the qualities of courage and confidence, someone with not only strength of personality as well as skill with arms but arguably a superb horseman, a possessor of stamina and patience. Claude Duval, a Frenchman who emigrated to England in the 1660s did much to reinforce this view of the highwayman as gentleman, with the polished gallantry with which his carried out his robberies, his Gallic good looks and flirtatious tendencies!
Highway robbery flourished at a time when the hold of government and of law and order was incomplete or when the forces of government were unpopular or illegitimate. It also required some degree of economic prosperity in order for the highwayman to have appropriately wealthy victims. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the implementation of the law was becoming stronger and more organised, highway robbery started to decline and the highwayman’s exploits turned into legend.
So is the appeal of the outlaw hero a celebration of liberty? Do they act as an example to all of us by being completely free and personify some of the aspirations that lie deep in many of us, not to go out and commit a criminal act, but to be a devil-may-care individualist? What do you think? Does the outlaw hero or heroine appeal to you in fiction or do you think that outlaws are no more than criminals? Who is your favourite outlaw or your favourite film/book with an outlaw hero or heroine?
I’ll be giving away a signed copy of The Confessions of a Duchess to a winner drawn at random from one of the people who leave a comment here. Thank you!