The Quality of Anger

We had another pet health emergency this week, a cat this time. He seems to be recovering nicely from his expensively unspecific “dietary indiscretion.” But it meant a couple of anxious nights during which I turned to my usual cure for insomnia: an old favorite audiobook. I chose Georgette Heyer’s Lady of Quality. 

I’ve always thought of this book as similar to Black Sheep, one of my favorite Heyer novels, and that’s true in terms of basic plot/character structure:

  • A late-20s heroine with a comfortable fortune, contentedly single
  • A rakish hero, considered (by interfering family) improper for the heroine to know
  • A girl, not quite out, for whom the heroine is responsible
  • Tension between heroine and hero created by this girl and her romantic entanglements
  • No one believes the heroine is in danger of falling for the hero, because his manners are deplorable and he’s not handsome, unlike her usual type
  • It turns out the hero is the heroine’s type, because he’s honest with her and understands her
  • Though she’s in love, the heroine is not sure she wants to marry and give up her independence

But listening to this book again soon after listening to Black Sheep during the dog health emergency, I was struck by the differences. There’s a lot of anger in Lady of Quality. The hero has a temper, but he’s not alone. When I grabbed the book off the shelf, the first page I opened to had the line, “She had been in a state of seething fury. . . .” Annis is angry a lot. And I think an angry romance heroine, or at least one who expresses her anger, is pretty rare. 

Cultural representations of anger are very gendered. Angry men may be scary and violent. Or they may be righteous leaders/rebels/reformers. Angry men are powerful, and their anger often has good cause. Angry women are harpies, viragos, feminazis. Their anger is never justified; it’s an over-reaction. Angry men can be good. Angry women? Not so much.

So I was surprised to find a sympathetic, likeable heroine who is so often angry. How does Heyer do it?

For one thing, Annis’ anger in the beginning of the novel is on behalf of another, as if Heyer’s easing us into anger. Annis takes Lucilla Carleton under her wing when she finds Lucilla at the side of the road, running away from an arranged marriage. Lucilla is essentially a pawn–or a burden–to the adults charged with her care. Annis sympathizes with her, and is angry at Lucilla’s uncle and guardian, Oliver, because his lack of attention has left Lucilla in this plight. So heroine and hero (because of course Oliver is the hero) meet angry, not cute.

Another reason the reader (at least this reader) doesn’t mind Annis’ anger is that Oliver generally doesn’t mind it. He’s perceptive about her feelings and recognizes her right to have them. True, he calls her “hornet,” but it’s an affectionate nickname (often “my sweet hornet”) rather than a way of belittling or de-legitimizing her anger. In their very first meeting, he quickly recognizes that he’s made her angry:

His penetrating gaze searched her face; he said: “Oh! Are we at dagger-drawing? What have I said to wind you up?”

They argue, but they argue as equals, and Oliver assures her he is “not trying to ride rough-shod over you.”

Oliver may provoke her to anger, but he also sympathizes with and encourages her to express her feelings:

At one moment, he could be brusque, and unfeeling; and then, when he had made her blazingly angry, his mood seemed to change, and her resentment was dispelled by the sympathy . . . which she heard in his voice, and detected in the softened look in his eyes. . . .

She hesitated, and after a moment he said in a matter-of-fact way: “You had better open the budget, you know, before all that seething wrath in you forces off the lid you’ve clamped down on it, and scalds everything within sight.”

I think all this anger is in part a symbol of the other passion, as yet unexpressed, blazing between them. There’s a rather stereotypical passage where Oliver points out how anger enhances her beauty, for instance (though he’s partly saying it in jest to make her angry).

But their willingness to fight their battles openly, to show each other their anger, is also a sign of their equality. They respect each other enough to be honest about their feelings and to work out their differences. Oliver is a hot-tempered and not particularly nice person. Annis’ ability to get angry at him assured me that she wouldn’t let him ride rough-shod over her if he ever had a mind to.

Finally, I saw Annis as justifiably angry at her circumstances. Her anger is often an attempt to defend herself against the restrictions placed on women of her time and class. So I guess this is my International Women’s Day post: like “angry feminists,” Annis has a lot to be angry about. It’s not her anger that’s the problem. Annis had to fight to leave her brother’s home and set up her own in Bath; reluctantly, she has accepted the companionship of a cousin to satisfy her brother’s sense of propriety. That cousin, Maria Farlow, is a font of non-stop, inane chatter who drives Annis mad. She reports on Annis to her brother, Sir Geoffrey. “Well-meaning” people are always trying to limit what Annis can do, treat her as if she were not an independent adult.

What made her so angry in the”scalding overflow” scene quoted above? Sir Geoffrey arrived unannounced at her house to tell her his wife and children were coming to stay the next day. Annis strongly–and correctly–suspects that the real reason for their visit is to “protect” her from Oliver Carleton. Geoffrey treats her house as his own and doesn’t consult her wishes. He doesn’t talk to her openly, as an equal, about his concerns, but tells her he knows what’s best for her. No wonder she’s angry. Most of the time she represses her anger, because that’s the proper thing for a Lady of Quality to do. But sometimes it overflows and scalds people.

Oliver, though he says he loves her for “her quality” (that’s the best way he can explain the inexplicable), recognizes her right to be angry. At the novel’s end, he’s magnificently angry on her behalf. I think both those things are important in Annis’ decision to marry him. She needs to be assured that she’ll be less constrained, not more, as his wife–and for women of her time and class, that still depends on his willingness not to constrain her.

All that said, while I understand and sympathize with Annis’ anger, I wonder if part of why I prefer Black Sheep to this book is that its characters spar and banter, but don’t really fight. It is a less angry book, easier to love. I can be an angry feminist, or just an angry woman. I think female anger needs to be expressed more. But I share some of the cultural discomfort with it, too.

If you’ve got thoughts on Lady of Quality or examples of angry heroines in romance or elsewhere, I’d love to hear them.

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22 Responses to The Quality of Anger

  1. GrowlyCub says:

    While I see the obvious similarities I’ve never felt that LoQ was the weaker book. I’ve never consciously considered it an angry book, but I now wonder whether many of the people who say it’s not as good as Black Sheep, do it because they are uncomfortable with Annis’ anger. I like both LoQ and Black Sheep equally and reread both at least once or twice a year.

    Another angry heroine in Heyer is in another Bath book, Serena in Bath Tangle, another on of my favorites..

    • willaful says:

      I think I’m the only person in the world who likes LoQ and not BS. Possibly I should try reading it again, since it’s been many years, but I simply could not bear the family situation in that book, whereas the one in LoQ doesn’t bother me in the same way.

      • Ros says:

        I certainly prefer Lady of Quality to Black Sheep, too.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          That’s really interesting. I think I prefer Black Sheep in part because of the hero. But Abby is far more trapped by her family than Annis is,
          because Abby allows herself to feel tied down by responsibility and affection in a way Annis does not (it’s interesting that they are both presented as “special” and superior to their siblings). It’s hard to read because she almost throws away her happiness for duty, whereas Annis really thinks she might be happier single. Abby is pretty martyrish.

  2. HJ says:

    Serena came to my mind at once as another angry Heyer heroine. The Reluctant Widow gets quite peeved, but not really angry! And Venetia is angry when she discovers the truth about her mother and how it was hidden from her but told to her schoolboy brother, and that everyone including Damerel is busy deciding what’s best for her.

    I’ve always found LoQ and BS too similar but yes, you’re right, Annis’s anger does distinguish between them.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Like you and GrowlyCub I thought of Serena when I was writing this. I have only read that book once, I think. The tangle of intersecting relationships is really interesting, but there’s an awful lot of arguing/fighting, and I really wondered how it was possibly all going to work out. I have trouble with Faro’s Daughter for the same reason. Some Heyer reminds me of older Harlequin Presents in the way that anger seems to stand in for sexual passion. In some books that bothers me more than others–I think it depends on how clearly hero/heroine obviously like each other, as well as being angry.

  3. Mary Balogh has a few angry heroines. A Christmas Bride springs to mind. As is often the case with Balogh books, this anger hides a damaged soul that requires healing.

    You also get lots of young angry heroines who come across not so much angry as petulant. Usually described as “headstrong”. The heroine of Chase’s the Lion’s Daughter struck me as being like that.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, Lucilla in Lady of Quality (and all her quarreling with Ninian) seems like one of those petulant girls. She has reason to be angry too, but unlike Annis, she hasn’t learned when and how to use her anger. The two make an interesting contrast.

  4. jmcbks says:

    Lori G. Armstrong’s protagonists, Julie Collins and Mercy Gunderson, are angry women. And also women capable of violence. Actually, I’m simultaneously fascinated by their violence and repelled by it as I read.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I have only read the first Mercy book, but I have the Julie Collins ones from a Kindle sale. I was struck by how “masculine” Mercy is in many ways–her career and character traits would typically be given to a romance *hero.* I wonder if there is more freedom to play with gender roles in mystery? I haven’t read any of Armstrong’s/Lorelei James’ romance but I get the impression she plays with typical roles a bit there, too.

      • GrowlyCub says:

        I haven’t read her Armstrong books, but her James ero romance is very gender stereotyping. Even the hardcore tattoo artist really just wants to settle down and pop out kids. That’s when I finally gave up on James. I just don’t feel like white picket fences and a gazillion billion anklebiters need to be in my erotic romance (esp the earlier heroine who started popping out twins in her 50s and by now must be in her 60s and seems to be still procreating – slight snark here but really).

      • jmcbks says:

        I have only read or tried to read a couple of Armstrong’s erotic romances. I thought the heroines looked different role-wise on the surface but ultimately were standard, traditional romance heroines.

  5. VacuousMinx says:

    I rarely reread LoQ. It’s partly the anger you talk about so well here, but it’s also that all of the characters seem very sharp-edged to me. It’s an aggressive book, everyone is always asserting themselves (or in the companion’s case, passive-aggressively ruining things). I have the same issue with Bath Tangle. The hostility and the frustration just jump off the page. They’re good books, but I have to be in a particular frame of mind to read them. I do enjoy the fact that LoQ is one of the few Heyers that has the hero and heroine clearly showing physical interest in each other, though. 😉

    I think the difference between LoQ/BT and other books with angry protagonists is that in these two, both the main characters are like that. There’s not a balance between the two. It will make for a noisy HEA.

    GrowlyCub, the Lori Armstrong books I’ve read, the first two Julie Collins books, are anything but stereotyping of women’s roles. Her voice is entirely different. I have no interest in the Lorelei Collins books, but I really like the Armstrong ones. As jmc says, they aren’t easy reads, but they’re rewarding.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes! Lots of hostility and frustration. Interesting but sometimes hard to read. (Also, I agree about the physical attraction, which is rare in Heyer). I am, as you know, reluctant to draw conclusions about an author based on a book, but this side of Heyer really does make me wonder about the frustration and anger she might have felt in her own life.

    • Ros says:

      Yes, definitely a noisy HEA. The hero admits as much at the end. But I think they will both be happy with each other in a way that they wouldn’t with quieter, gentler, less angry types. I really like how honest they are with themselves and with each other, even about the kinds of feelings most people attempt to disguise. I find theirs a very realistic depiction of a certain kind of relationship.

  6. GrowlyCub says:

    I don’t think it’s gonna be noisy in LoQ because Annis’ reasons for anger will have been eliminated as Carleton won’t try to hedge her in as her family did. BT is a different story and I agree theirs will be a tempestuous but never boring marriage. 🙂

    It’s interesting to hear that James’ Armstrong books are so different. Her ero rom started out different but then it devolved into Super Romances with lotsa sex and even more babies.

    • VacuousMinx says:

      Both TheHusband and I have liked the Julie Collins books. They can be kind of downer-ish at times, but the setting and the characters are so evocative. I also talked to Armstrong at a conference and heard her on a couple of panels and found her to be smart, down to earth, and friendly.

  7. Kathryn says:

    Hmm I like both LoQ and BS, and maybe BS better. But I think it’s because I find many of the secondary characters more fun. But I may reconsider this after reading this posting. You’re correct there is a lot of anger in LoQ, but I believe in the ending because I believe that Oliver and Annis do respect and love each other. However, I’ve also been a bit more unsure with Serana and Ivo in BT — even though they have known each other for so long and have lots in common. BT is probably one of Heyer’s more clearly class-conscious books — all the lovers are matched explicitly according to their class and it is pretty clearly stated that marrying outside of your class would be a disaster. But I just don’t feel at the end that Serena and Ivo have in fact worked out a relationship that is based on love, respect, and the ability to listen to each other. Oliver and Annis in LoQ clearly have.

    Other books with angry heroines — many of Crusie’s romances: Fast Women and Agnes and the Hitman in particular. It’s a big theme in Crusie — women repressing their anger (because that’s what women are supposed to do) over the way they have been treated until they finally explode in some fashion or another. I find Fast Women problematical in part because Nell represses her anger in part by redoing Gabe’s office to resemble her old office space that she shared with ex. Gabe at the beginning wants nothing to change, but Nell keeps redoing things without asking him — which causes several of their fights. So at the end of Fast Women, she and Gabe are working in a space dominated by her previous life’s decorating choices (and which for the most part was done by Nell going behind his back). This I thought undercut the reader’s ability to believe that her life with Gabe is a partnership, nothing like her old life where she was simply the secretary and domestic handmaiden, who was secretly manipulating her husband because he wouldn’t listen to her and didn’t respect her intelligence. If it is true that her life has finally changed for the better, then the office decor should have been altered once again by both of them openly discussing what to do and how to do it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks for this great comment. Yes, Crusie is definitely interested in anger. (I need to listen to Fast Women again; so much in it surprised me the first time through). One of my favorites is Manhunting, and I think Kate’s anger at the way so many men around her diminish her comes out in the accidents that keep happening to them. Even when she isn’t consciously angry, the repressed energy is squirting out the sides and having an effect. Crusie gets a lot of humor out of anger, but I’d say–although I haven’t thought this through–that Heyer’s angrier books are her less funny ones. Not sure what to make of that, but it’s intriguing.

      • Kathryn says:

        Hmm, I wonder if it’s because Heyer’s funnier books function more as drawing room comedies while Crusie’s are closer to screwball comedies. I think with drawing room comedies — if there is too much anger than the ideological weaknesses in the comedy become apparent (in Heyer’s case, I think the humour begins to rest more and more problematically on class / gender / anti-Semitic stereotypes ). Crusie uses anger to drive her comedy and she is actually interested in subverting/transforming the status quo around gender issues. I don’t think Heyer ever really had much interest in subverting the status quo (whether on gender or class issues and certainly not on race/ethnicity).

        And I definitely agree about Manhunting — Kate’s anger and what happens to all the men are definitely interconnected. There’s lots of anger in Crusie’s heroines from Tell Me Lies where Maddie stabs the brownie to death after finding about husband’s affair to Quinn’s anger at her controlling, stalker ex in Crazy for You, which results in her attacking him after he constantly tries to sabotage her house and harm her dog to Sophie’s anger at all the small-town people who never accepted her and her siblings in Welcome to Temptation. Most of the time I think Crusie’s use of anger works but in Fast Women and Agnes not so sure it does.

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