Writing realistic rakes in romantic fiction

This post was first published on Quenby Olsen Eisenacher’s blog as part of my blog tour for A Baron for Becky.

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In modern historical romantic fiction, the hero is often a rake who sees the error of his ways when he falls in love with the heroine, and—after undergoing various trials—becomes a faithful husband and devoted family man.

Most of those rakes, I suggest, are not rakes at all. They’re what we today would call womanisers or players, but they’re not rakes in the sense that the term was used in Georgian and Regency England. Our rake heroes sleep with multiple lovers (either sequentially or concurrently) or keep a series of mistresses, or both. But back then, the term signified a much more disreputable character. It needed to. Otherwise, most of the male half of Polite Society would have been defined as rakes. And a fair percentage of the female half.

We are talking of a time when one in five women in London earned their living from the sex trade, guide books to the charms, locations, and prices of various sex workers were best-selling publications, men vied for the attention of the reigning courtesans of the day and of leading actresses, and both men and women chose their spouses for pedigree and social advantage then sought love elsewhere.

In those days, a rakehell was defined as a person who was lewd, debauched, and womanising. Rakes gambled, partied and drank hard, and they pursued their pleasures with cold calculation. To earn the name of rake or rakehell meant doing something outrageous—seducing innocence, conducting orgies in public, waving a public flag of corrupt behaviour under the noses of the keepers of moral outrage. For example, two of those who defined the term simulated sex with one another while preaching naked to the crowd from an alehouse balcony.

Drunkenness certainly didn’t make a man a rake—the consumption of alcohol recorded in diaries of the time is staggering. Fornication and adultery weren’t enough either, at least when conducted with a modicum of discretion (which meant in private or, if in public, then with other people who were doing the same thing).

Lord Byron earned the name with many sexual escapades, including—so rumour had it—an affair with his sister. His drinking and gambling didn’t help, either. But none of these would have been particularly notable if they had not been carried out in public.

The Italian adventurer Giacomo Casanova mixed in the highest circles, and did not become notorious until he wrote the story of his life.

On the other hand, William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, lived with his wife and his mistress, who was his wife’s best friend. The three did not share the details of their relationship with the wider world, so there was gossip, but not condemnation. Devonshire is also rumoured to have been one of Lady Jersey’s lovers (the mother of the Lady Jersey of Almack fame).

I planned for my Marquis of Aldridge to be a real rake: a person whose behaviour, despite his social status as the heir to a duke, causes mothers to warn their daughters about him. On the other hand, I didn’t want him to be a totally unsympathetic character. After all, not only is he the only hero on the scene for the first half of the book; he’s also going to be the hero of his own book after he has been through a few more trials and tribulations.

He has had mixed reviews since A Baron for Becky was published. Most reviewers like the rogue, and are asking for his story, while still acknowledging that he is a libertine. One or two dislike him heartily, and one said:

Note to author: your main characters were very interesting but you hinted at some type of redemption for one particular character that I just cannot fathom. I challenge you to make me like him better because I disliked him throughout the story.

Now there’s a challenge I can’t refuse!

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11 thoughts on “Writing realistic rakes in romantic fiction

  1. I’m one of those readers who love Aldridge, especially since I’ve been able to follow him in the Bluestocking Bookshop in Facebook. In A Baron for Becky, you gave me more indepth information on his character and I look forward to seeing how you redeem him (at least to a point) so he, too, can have his happily ever after.

    Of course you realize once he’s married off, you’ll need another rake to replace him. I have no doubt you’ll be up to the task to give us another man we can’t help but fall in love with and/or hate!

    • You’ve not yet met Aldridge’s younger brother Gren, Sherry. Or Rede’s cousin Julius. Adridge, describing Gren, says: “”He adores women. All kinds. Put him in a brothel and he’s like a child in a sweet shop. He’ll try the whole range.”

      • This is the scene in Embracing Prudence where my heroine meets Gren. She is being chased up the stairs of the courtesan’s house in which she works as housekeeper by three ‘gentlemen’.

        “Having fun, gentlemen?” The drawl came from the floor above. Lord Jonathan Grenford. Four of them, and one of those behind her.

        “Gren, come and help grab her,” Anniston commanded.

        “She assaulted Tiv.” That was Barney.

        “We’re going to make her pay,” Tiv said, gloating.

        “I don’t think the young woman wishes to play.” Lord Jonathan’s voice remained quiet and calm. “You don’t do you, Mrs Worth?” he asked.

        “No,” Prue said, shortly, “and for the record, he assaulted me first.”

        “Oh, I believe you,” Lord Jonathan said. “In fact, I heard you tell him to let you go. I do apologise for my tardiness, Mrs Worth, but I heard him scream and thought you had it well in hand, so I stopped to find my breeches, which wasn’t as easy as I expected. Your mistress will be joining us when she… there you are, Lilly.”

    • I had no trouble with making my hero arrogant, self-centred, and profoundly sure that he is a gift to everything in skirts. My problem was to give a sense of vulnerability and a depth that hinted at more.

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