Saint-Germain and the Lives of Women by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro is referred to by some as the mother of paranormal romance. She began writing the Saint Germain stories four decades ago with the first Saint-Germain book published in 1978. While the Saint-Germain series is technically not a romance (Saint Germain cycles through more than one woman during his immortal life span), the Saint-Germain series was perhaps the first genre fiction that attempted to show vampires in a positive light and to “subvert the standard myth to invent the first vampire who was more honorable, humane, and heroic than most of the humans around him. She fully meshed the vampire with romance and accurately detailed historical fiction and filtered it through a feminist perspective that both the giving of sustenance and its taking were of equal erotic potency.”
She offered this essay about her work and the struggles of including women in her historically accurate paranormal stories. It was a really interesting insight into the time period and the balancing an author must do in order to create vibrant characters that still resonate with the period. In light of our discussions here at Dear Author about historical accuracy, I thought that this author’s viewpoint was worth publishing.
When I began work on the Saint-Germain Cycle, almost four decades ago, I had three thematic goals in mind: first, to push the vampire archetype as far to the positive as possible and still retain the characteristics of the archetype; second, to give the reader some idea of what it was like to live in the time of the story; third, to put emphasis on the lives of women -‘ of all three goals, the third has turned out to be the most difficult.
The problem is that almost all history is written by men about men; women, even when they were allowed to be literate, did not reveal much of how they lived, and researching certain periods in history have proven to be much more difficult in this regard than I had anticipated. One of the things that became apparent was that, generally speaking, the lives of women, from the highest social stratum of society to the lowest had more commonality than did the lives of men, since most of the time women had limited legal rights that often forbade the control of their money and property, restricted educational opportunities, and imposed draconian penalties for any perceived or actual transgressions.
One of the difficulties in choosing periods in history for stories to occur has to do with the position of foreigners -‘ and Saint-Germain is nothing if not a foreigner -‘ in society, and access to women. Better in the Dark deals with one of the most onerous times for the oppression of women. While I was researching the period, I came across a book on laws and their enforcement in northern Germany at that time, and the thing that most appalled me was that if a married woman had intercourse with any man but her husband, he was expected to kill her, and any of her children. This applied even in cases of rape. That told me much more than I wanted to know about women in the mid-tenth century, but it gave me a powerful sense of the society in which the women lived.
Most of the women in Saint-Germain's life are in one way or another on the fringes of their societies; even women in positions of privilege, such as Xenya in Darker Jewels, or Acana Tupac in Mansions of Darkness. Others, like Csimenae inCome Twilight, and Tulsi Kil in A Feast in Exile, are virtual outcasts. A small number are substitute males, like T'en Chih-Yu in Path of the Eclipse, or Ranegonda in Better in the Dark. Some are being manipulated by controlling males, such as Hero inBorne in Blood and Leocadia in Communion Blood. A few, like Madelaine de Montalia and Rowena Saxon, appear in multiple books, and in Madelaine's case, have books of their own; the other spin-off books are about Atta Olivia Clemens, who first appears in Blood Games.
About Olivia: Olivia provides the female experience more directly than Saint-Germain does: in the three books about her (A Flame in Byzantium, Crusaders' Torch, and Candles for d'Artagnan, to use its original title) Olivia, an Imperial Roman matron, sees her position and autonomy erode steadily, and, since she is an intelligent and capable woman, this pisses her of off. Her frustration with the impositions society made on women after the Roman Empire fell to the various barbarians and the Christians inform her three novels; being seriously long-lived, Olivia knows from experience what she has lost, and is not much inclined to be philosophical about it. Unlike Madelaine, who sees the opportunities for female scholars gradually improve, Olivia had to deal with circumstances growing steadily worse. For Olivia, Saint-Germain is the one person who understands her sense of being thwarted by social conventions, and who grasps her on-going disappointment.
In Western societies, few professions have been open to women between the end of the fourth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries beyond those of servant, religious, nurse, and prostitute. Somewhere in the first half of the fourteenth century, English developed words for females in certain jobs -‘ baxter, a female baker; webster, a female weaver; and brewster, a female brewer -‘ indicating certain skills moved outside the home for women of the working classes, although almost all working-class women practiced these crafts domestically. In these cases, the working-class women had more opportunities than either peasant women, or upper-class women, and may have contributed to the emergence of a genuine middle class, some centuries later.
These kinds of tipping-points in society are often the most fertile ground for Saint-Germain stories to sprout in. Societies in flux usually have periods, however brief, of legal and occupational fluidity, and that tends to be what I look for in terms of environments and settings for Saint-Germain, in large part because the most stringent restrictions on women tend to relax a little during such transitional periods, and the position of foreigners tends to be less proscribed than when society follows established norms. One of the reasons Saint-Germain novels do not often deal with the cultures of the Middle East is because of the extreme sequestration of women, which tends to limit the erotic possibilities for Saint-Germain; it would also expose any woman involved with him to the possibility of extreme consequences for her association with him, which he would not find acceptable.
When I started out with the cycle, finding reliable information on women's lives was more difficult than it is now. Luckily I lived near the University of California's Berkeley campus and therefore had a large supply of graduate students to take to lunch to pick their brains -‘ a practice I continue to this day. As a result I can cross-check the published information on a vast variety of subjects and periods, and find out the most current information available. Also, I have the chance to hear the latest debates and theories, especially in regard to the lives of women, which often results in richer historical textures to Saint-Germain's adventures.
© Copyright 2010 by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. All rights reserved.
About Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro is the first woman to be named a Living Legend by the International Horror Guild and is one of only two women ever to be named as Grand Master of the World Horror Convention (2003). In 1995, Yarbro was the only novelist guest of the Romanian government for the First World Dracula Congress, sponsored by the Transylvanian Society of Dracula, the Romanian Bureau of Tourism and the Romanian Ministry of Culture.
A skeptical occultist for forty years, Yarbro has studied everything from alchemy to zoomancy, and in the late 1970s worked occasionally as a professional tarot card reader and palmist at the Magic Cellar in San Francisco. For more information on Yarbro's many books and interests, check out her website at www.chelseaquinnyarbro.net.