I am finishing up my third manuscript in the Lord Julian mystery series, and one thing I enjoy about a recurring protagonist is that I can get to know him–really get to know him. I don’t have to say good-bye to his lordship as a protagonist just because one book’s worth of problems have been solved.
Julian is better acquainted than I could ever be with what’s called an honor culture, as opposed to a dignity culture. In a dignity culture (the present day US somewhat qualifies), small insults are ignored or peacefully resolved between the parties, the rule of law applies to everybody (“all men are created equal…” -ish), and public institutions–the courts, the free press, regulatory bodies, the educational systems, churches and so forth–enforce norms of good behavior. That’s the theory, in any case.
The historical Scottish borders and the American Old West are often described as honor cultures. No overarching rule of law or social institution provides a bulwark against chaos or peril in such settings. No individual rights or liberties are considered universal. Every slight to a person’s good name has to be personally addressed, and personal integrity is highly valued. Personal status and personal accomplishments affect influence and standing–none of this created equal baloney. Whereas a dignity culture might become excessively litigious, an honor culture can descend into bloody feuds and vigilantism.
Regency society (and certainly American society of the day) was in transition between honor culture, which understood dueling, oligarchy, and bloody conquest, and dignity culture, which supported a free press, expanded suffrage, an impartial judiciary, and Thomas Jefferson’s lofty (patriarchal, and deeply hypocritical) rhetoric of equality.
That being the case, Julian is surrounded by people who still value symbols of honor. Signet rings, family titles, dueling scars, regalia of office, and military forms of address carried into civilian life all made sense to Julian before he became a prisoner of war, then an injured veteran. By the time we meet him, he’s a man in transition.
He has mustered out in disgrace, and doesn’t use his military rank if he can avoid it. He knows firsthand what it is to be stripped of all respect, and the idea that women, the poor, or children have no dignity worth defending strikes him as absurd, though it’s still entrenched in English law. His opinions on dueling wax profane, and he’s a far humbler fellow than the guy who bought his flashy regimentals and sailed off to teach Old Boney a lesson.
Julian still has a badge or two of honor, though. Because his eyes were damaged by a battlefield explosion, he needs tinted spectacles to deal with strong sunlight. He wears them with pride, always has a spare pair on hand, and soon becomes closely identified with them in larger society. They announce to the world (that feels entitled to judge him unfairly) that he’s suffered for his country. His specs also afford him some privacy, to the extent that the eyes are windows to the soul.
My yard flowers might be badges of honor. I developed the habit of flower gardening only as foster care advocacy rubbed my nose in some fetid truths about a society that professes to value families and children. I will put some beauty into this world, and I will put the pretty where anybody driving past can see it. Every year, for as many seasons as I can manage. I will.
Do you have any badges of honor? Mementos of accomplishment on display for all to see? On display for YOU to see?