Week 2 Mini-Critique

TITLE: The Debutante’s Dilemma
AUTHOR: Claire M.
CATEGORY: Historical Romance

London, 1814

Miss Cecilia Hastings was a [the] luckiest girl who had ever lived to draw breath.

As she waited along the sidelines amongst her usual bevy of admirers, this was the near-universal assessment of the seven hundred guests crushed into Lady Stanhope’s well-illuminated ballroom like so many potted fish on this early June evening. Love the image of potted fish. Is it realistic to think that 700 people would fit into a private ballroom?

That the young lady was well-favoured, with a tall, even figure, a smooth throat and milk-white skin, striking grey eyes and dark chestnut hair, there was no doubt. Just eighteen, she was everywhere lauded for her calm manners and her unerring ability to navigate London’s treacherous social shoals while appearing neither missish nor imperious. She danced divinely. She both sang and played the pianoforte. She could read Italian and spoke French beautifully. She had befriended new and old, wealthy and modest with equal disregard for their particular standings. Her sartorial sense was unmatched and her dresser had been offered no less than a half-dozen bribes if she would but reveal the secrets to her mistress’ beauty regime.

But there was no doubt that Cecilia’s most particular and celebrated feature had been her ability, in this, her first London season, to attract not one, but two, of the most eligible bachelors in England as suitors to her hand.

Single, handsome, titled heirs, educated at Cambridge, related to some of the oldest families in the country, and possessors of estates that would make the most hardened steward weep for joy. Each with a splendid house in town, their family seats – in Kent and Sussex, respectively – marvels of country grandeur and, crowning joy of crowning joy, each able to avail themselves [himself] of a clear £12,000 a year. While this was good money in 1814, was it actually the huge fortune, for a duke or an earl, that you want it to be?

In a word, that which every young woman – and her mama – aspired to with a fierce and competitive single-mindedness during the whole course of the season from January to June, Miss Hastings had achieved in duplicate I love this phrase! without seeming to discompose a single hair on her well-coiffed head.

Of course, there were some of her immediate peers, girls who had not met with such unmatched reception, who thought that such excess smacked of matrimonial gluttony and another great phrase and behind her back took a savage delight in criticizing her faults, real or imagined, but to her face, they were all smiles and compliments, begging, in their most gracious voices, to have Miss Hastings share her secrets for winding her turban à la turque or to solicit a recommendation for the name of her mantua maker.

That both gentlemen had made handsome presentations to the young lady’s gratified and justly rewarded father in the past se’ennight was knowledge in such widespread circulation that any repetition of the fact elicited the merest murmur of acknowledgement by its weary listeners, so shopworn had that particular social nugget become in the retelling. Now, as the season wound its way to its overstuffed and over-heated conclusion, the single most pressing question in the minds of nearly everyone who had made an appearance in the Stanhope’s crowded ballroom on this warm summer night was which of the two gentlemen Miss Hastings would ultimately accept in the coming days.

To be fair, one or two of the guests were more interested in considering what they would enjoy during Lady Stanhope’s lavish cold supper, and another in considering whether he should or should not accede to his belle amie’s increasingly strident demands for a larger residence, but on the whole, the question of whether Lord Jeremy Battersley, sixth Earl of Henley or His Grace Richard Huxley, fourteenth Duke of Wexford, would be so distinguished by the young lady in question as to be allowed the honour of reciting the toast to the new bride on the day of her nuptials was without a doubt the most engrossing conundrum of the entire season.

What Cecilia herself thought of the particulars of her situation were, of course, mere speculation, and who her ultimate choice would be was still a matter of fervent wagering in gentlemen’s clubs across the city, but for once, even the ton’s most inveterate gossip-mongers could find nothing to rebuke her for and could not conceive of her being less than ecstatic at her unparalleled social coup, aux anges as it were, at achieving the ultimate maidenly triumvirate: a marriage of the highest order, where both parties were socially elevated, dazzlingly rich and enviably well-favoured.

It was simply a matter of choosing between them.

Unfortunately for the curious onlookers, as the music began and she stepped onto the dance floor in the company of her latest partner, Miss Hastings, the nonpareil of the season of ’14, was wondering exactly the same thing herself.


Claire, you write very well, and this scene flows like poetry. I love the imagery and the sly little comparisons, like the guests as potted fish, and the way the other girls treat Cecilia to her face while talking about her behind her back. Your choice of details is excellent and accurate, and you use them to good effect.

But I’m not sure why I should feel eager to read Cecilia’s story. Aside from the problem of choosing between her two suitors, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly troubling or worrisome about Cecilia’s life which would draw me into wanting to know more about her. And even the choice of a suitor isn’t a problem which leaves me breathless. Both the men who want to marry her are very eligible, and even Cecilia doesn’t seem to think there’s a pence worth of difference between them. Add in the fact that Cecilia sounds absolutely perfect in every way, and it’s hard for me to get too excited over finding out which man she decides on, or what happens to her.

I think the problem arises largely because until the very last paragraph, I’m being told about Cecilia rather than being inside Cecilia’s head. I don’t get a chance to know the heroine, because I’m hearing the author tell me about her instead. In fact, I know more about what everyone else in London in the year 1814 thinks than I do about what Cecilia thinks. Because of the omniscient point of view, this opening – well-written though it is – reads more like a synopsis than the first chapter of a book.

Let me see Cecilia for myself – especially if you can show me that she’s not as smooth and polished inside as she appears, or if you can show me that she’s in love with someone else entirely and he’s completely ineligible, or if you can give me some other reason why I should truly care who she ends up with —and then I’ll be eagerly turning pages to see how it all comes out.

I have a question for everyone … how do you decide, when it comes to showing vs. telling, what the right proportions are for your story?

Please take a moment to give us feedback on the contest.


6 responses

20 01 2010
Rachelle Chase

Claire, what a well-written piece! I think this might be the first time I’ve read a historical romance in the omniscient POV. In fact, it’s because you did such a good job with this POV – the great imagery, subtle sarcasm, and lyrical wording – that I kept reading about such a seemingly perfect heroine with such a seemingly perfect life.

With the addition of each layer of perfection, the suspense built, and I was waiting for the shoe to drop — to discover all the imperfect things that were really going on.

So, when I got close to the end and discovered that everything really was perfect, I lost interest. Because, like Leigh, I didn’t feel there was any conflict or problems that needed to be overcome to keep me reading.

If you reduce the narrative a bit, give me some sort of unique and surprising jolt that shows all is not as well as it seems, and show Cecilia in action before this scene ends, I’ll be anxiously turning the pages.

You’re off to a wonderful start!

20 01 2010
Rachelle Chase

P.S. That’s a great question, Leigh. I look forward to hearing what others have to say… 🙂

20 01 2010
Claire M.

Leigh and Rachelle, thank-you for making my day! I’m tickled pink that you chose my submission to turn your experienced eyes on. Thanks too for all your kind comments and insights. I quite enjoyed letting my inner snark out, albeit in my plummiest Regency tones, as I wrote this.

This is the beginning of a short story, not a full length novel. As such, I needed to convey a fair bit of backstory concisely, while also setting out a self-contained inciting incident that could be resolved in the word count (ie. which man?) and introducing the central characters fairly efficiently: hence, my reasons for entering at the end of the courtship, at the verge of the proposal, rather than documenting the entire season.

I chose to bookend this story, intro and epilogue, with an onmniscient narrator for a couple of reasons. One, it’s a surprisingly common POV for period novels (“Belinda” is great for this), and I think duplicating the POV gives a greater sense of time and place, as does using the language. Rest assured, the rest of the short story is told in the standard 3rd person, moving between the two heros and Cecilia POVs as we progress. Two, I loved the juxtaposition of the public with the private experience and the delicious ironies that can be conveyed when the reader knows the discrepencies between the characters’ actual experiences and the “polite version” the o.n. is relating.

Leigh, you wanted to know if there’s anything to upset Cecilia’s victory parade. There is, because she’s got a well-concealed wild side that’s very much at odds with her perfect reputation, and she wants passion in her marriage, not just tepid respect. She decides to answer the question of whether the men are simply fond of her or in love with her in a very definite manner when she writes a very unorthodox letter to both men, issuing something of a challenge. Let’s just say there is a high degree of sensuality in this story, and explores her *options* thoroughly and to the third degree 😉

I’m going to take your excellent comments, reexamine my story arc and tempo and hopefully make this an even tighter manuscript. Thanks again!


20 01 2010

This opening reminds me very strongly of my favourite Georgette Heyer (The Grand Sophy) which also opens with an omniscient POV. But like Leigh and Rachelle, I’d love to have ended this piece with a little insight into the conflict beneath the surface – though I’m sure it’s coming soon enough.

Wonderful writing, Claire, and I for one would read on …

2 02 2010

I’ve always have had a big problem with “showing” and not “telling.” Or rather, having too much of the latter and not enough of the first. After many workshops of people writing all over my submissions and manuscripts with big red arrows that screamed “SCENE! SCENE!”, I started to understand that if there is something that could move my reader emotionally, that I should probably be showing it and not telling it.

IE: To summarize that one of my main characters had a miscarriage when she desperately wished for that baby would cheat my reader of showing them the heartbreak, confusion and sorrow that the character had to endure during the tough time. Sure, no one wants to read miscarriage after miscarriage scenes, but if it is integral and it is going to change your character, then it has to do the same for your reader.

In my opinion. 🙂

6 02 2010

I agree with both of Leigh’s comments at the very beginning. Seven-hundred people would be a bit too much. Maybe you could pare it down a little.

Good description when you were telling us about the others who would say nice things and smile to her face, but may not be so gracious behind her back. Unless they were best friends, they would probably have some envy of her.

I liked the idea that she had two men to choose from and that this idea would create some interesting obstacles and even keep us guessing if our own choice would be the one she would choose.

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