This week I read a short article from Joris Lammers at the Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Tilburg University in The Netherlands. It was based on a survey of 1,561 professionals and used to study the relationship between power and infidelity. It seems that power increases our confidence in the ability to attract partners. I suppose the most surprising thing for me was that the results were the same for both men and women.
This got me thinking about characters. Now, I’m not going to talk about adultery, an act that inherently implies lies and deceit, neither of which are attractive qualities. No, I wondered if there would ever be a place in one of my stories for a single, powerful, promiscuous woman. Umm, I’m not sure, but being a fan of history I decided to look for examples of such a creature and came across Catherine the Great.
She was born Sophie Friederike Auguste, a young German aristocrat, who was sent to Russia to marry the Grand Duke Peter, a man she despised, and who despised her in return. She worked to ingratiate herself, not just with the aristocracy, but also with the lower classes, learning Russian and converting to the Russian Orthodox religion. There are stories about her discussing books with her servants and serving them lunch.
With the help of her lover, Gregory Orlov, she seized power from her husband in 1761, and set about pulling Russia out of the middle ages. In her thirty-six years as Empress she promoted widespread education, championed the arts and literature, and extended Russia’s borders though diplomacy and military might.
Catherine was a truly remarkable, woman and it is sad that she is remembered most for her sexual appetite. It seems that in her life she had twelve lovers in total, which isn’t many when you consider that Penny from The Big bang Theory has had over thirty partners. Yes, I know Penny’s fictional, but I used her as an example of how our attitudes have changed. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were the most oppressive period in Western History for women. A time when a woman’s every move was controlled by her father or husband. And here was Catherine, freely having affairs, out of wedlock, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. So, it’s not surprising that she is remembered most for her numerous affairs, and even more tragic that most people think she died trying to have intercourse with a horse, a lie that is completely unfounded. She actually died in November 1796 after collapsing in her bathroom.
What does this have to do with writing and characters? When I read the original article I wondered if I could ever write about a promiscuous, powerful woman in a sympathetic light and after reading about Catherine’s life I have to say…yes. She was ruthless, cunning, generous, intelligent, but I believe she was lonely too. None of her lovers suffered from their acquaintance with her. She wasn’t vindictive. With each one of them she was generous, not just with her wealth but with her time and experience as a leader. She enriched their lives, enabling them to achieve their goals. And I think those are character traits I could work with.