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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.

Hotel Transyvlania

Book 1 of the Saint Germain series

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.

The Palace

Book 2 in the Saint Germain series

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.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

15 Comments

  1. Lynne Connolly
    Nov 09, 2010 @ 06:28:44

    Thank you for publishing the thoughts of one of the real pioneers in the vampire genre. And someone who writes engaging, believable historical fiction.
    And of course she’s absolutely on the ball. Some recent research has added really new lights into the mid-Georgian period, which concentrate on women. Amanda Vickery’s research that resulted in her doctoral thesis and the book, “The Gentleman’s Daughter” and Lucy Inglis’s research into the women of Georgian London. Her studies aren’t published yet, but she has a contract and hopefully we’ll see the results soon. I was lucky enough to attend her talk to the RNA at the conference in London, and her study of the 1731 Poll Tax records have yielded some fascinating insights. She’s now “blogger in residence” at the Museum of London, and her blog is a must for anyone interested in the Georgian era.
    Dan Cruickshank’s new book, “The Secret History of Georgian London,” looking at how the sex trade influenced architecture also neccessarily concentrates on women.
    But Yarbro’s interests go further and into different eras. Hats off to her.

  2. Elise Logan
    Nov 09, 2010 @ 07:05:51

    Thank you, Jane! This is a great essay and points out one of my main difficulties in writing historicals. I like strong female characters, and placing them in an historically accurate way makes things challenging. I will have to redouble my efforts on my one real historical effort underway.

  3. DS
    Nov 09, 2010 @ 07:18:50

    Thanks for publishing this. I’ve fallen a few books behind in my Saint-Germain novel reading, but CQY is one of my auto-buys so I have then all waiting.

    She sets her stories in periods and times that I may not know much about, but her books have always carried this stamp of authenticity that has made me think she has done her research. Even her non-Saint-Germaine books– sf, mystery, fantasy, historical fiction– are good reads.

    I have at times wondered if her vampire stories would have been better sellers in the beginning if her last name had not begun with “Y”. In bookstores it was always necessary to scrunch down in the bottom corner of the bottom shelf to find her titles.

  4. Darlene Marshall
    Nov 09, 2010 @ 07:24:05

    Thank you for sharing this. I read Hotel Transylvania when it was first published and it rocked my world. St. Germain is one of the great literary heroes, and this essay was fascinating. I’d never contrasted Olivia and Madeleine’s experiences that way.

  5. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
    Nov 09, 2010 @ 11:03:39

    Thank you for posting this essay; I appreciate all the kind responses. Let me add this about historical research for fiction: the two hardest things to find out is what they had for regular breakfast, and what they wore when they were schlepping around the house, because the people who record such things assume everyone knows that.

  6. Donna Cummings
    Nov 09, 2010 @ 11:28:16

    I have loved these books for such a long time, and this essay reminded me it’s been too long since I’ve read them! I always loved how much I learned–about political nuances, and historical interactions–while enjoying the escapades of characters I adored.

    I definitely need to re-read these now!

  7. shelly
    Nov 09, 2010 @ 11:28:22

    Thanks so much for this Jane! And Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. I feel like she’s really an underappreciated writer. I’ve learned so much from her books, not just about history but also about how people respond to change, and anything different really. Her books always make me look for the monsters in me, and that change in perception is something I gain from only the best books.

  8. JenM
    Nov 09, 2010 @ 12:03:38

    The first vampire book I ever read was Hotel Transylvania and the Count of Saint Germaine was one of my first teenage literary crushes. I so admired Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s ability to write an amazing story and convey an impressive amount of history in an entertaining package. It is a bit depressing though to read about the lives of these (fictional) women. Their inability to control their fates made me so sad, but ultimately very grateful to be living in the US in this current day and age. Chelsea deserves to be widely read by all fans of paranormal or historical fiction.

  9. Holly
    Nov 09, 2010 @ 13:22:45

    I’ve loved these books by Ms. Yarbro ever since I found them in the late 1970s. I’ve followed the Count’s life avidly. I’ve smiled for him and cried for him. These are definite rereads (and keepers) for me too.

  10. Holly
    Nov 09, 2010 @ 14:16:46

    Ms. Yarbro – are the bulk of your books due to come out electronically any time in the future? I’d love to get Hotel Transylvania and Tempting Fate (and many others) for my Nook.

  11. Daz
    Nov 09, 2010 @ 18:54:30

    Does one have to start the St Germain books from the beginning or is it possible to read some of the more recent books first?

  12. shelly
    Nov 09, 2010 @ 19:56:55

    Daz, the books jump around chronologically, so you can read in any order if you really want. But be aware that you can come across characters in multiple books, a few of the books continuing story lines from other books. And Olivia’s books are best read in order.

  13. Daz
    Nov 09, 2010 @ 20:16:02

    Thanks so much for explaining, Shelly.

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    Jan 13, 2012 @ 20:18:12

    [...] Mother of Paranormal Romance.” Read her astute analysis of her archetypal protagonist in Saint-Germain and the Lives of Women. Tags: Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Horror, Vampires Posted in E-Reads Featured Books | 0 Comments [...]

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    Sep 27, 2012 @ 22:10:10

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