On the Perils of Historical Verisimilitude

Yesterday was a Day of Much Busy-ness (among other accomplishments, I mopped the whole house! Twice! And the mop water in the second round was still a delightful shade of gray, but fuck that noise, I’m not going to mop the goddamn place a third time—hey, at least the floors are two shades less gray than they were before) and oh god what was the point of my sentence? Oh yes. BUSY AS A BUG all day yesterday, so I didn’t get to participate in Smart Bitches day, and I know, it’s silly, we ARE the Smart Bitches so every day is Smart Bitches day in these here parts, but y’know. I’m nothing if not a participator.

So anyway, I picked up Mary Jo Putney’s The Bartered Bride the other day in my ongoing “read one romance novel, read 10 pages of Fabric of the Cosmos, have those 10 pages totally blow my mind then read another romance novel to put my mind back together” endeavor. When I got to page 2, though, I had to put the book down. Why? Because this sentence came out of Kyle Renbourne’s mouth: “The investigator has a couple of leads that might prove who tried to make you look guilty.”

OK, first of all: LEADS? What kind of talk is that for a British lord in 18-motherfucking-35?

And second of all: Couple? I know this word has been used to mean “a pair of things” for a long time, but its presence, together with “leads,” makes this sentence sound like a line out of a Dash Hammett caper, not a historical romance.

And that quickly, the world was ruined. I was thoroughly pulled out of the book, and I won’t try to read it again until I’m feeling less cranky about it.

Another example:

By and large, I enjoy Judith Ivory novels, and she’s an autobuy author. When I picked up Untie My Heart, though, I immediately noticed that the recipes provided by the Victorian sheep-farmer heroine were all in grams and kilograms—which immediately awakened the Nitpicking Monster who slumbers within my breast, because the Imperial system was still the standard among laypeople (read: non-scientist types) until well into the twentieth century. If you look at old home-written recipes, many of them don’t use standard measurements, much less the metric system—they’re all about “a pinch of this” and “handful of that.” Even today, metrication isn’t complete in all parts of the United Kingdom. Just ask the people at the UK Metric Association, and they’ll give you an earful.

So again: brutally yanked out of an author’s carefully set up world, and I had to set the book down and go back to it later. I don’t know if my initial peeve stayed with me or if it’s just a coincidence, but this was also the first Judith Ivory book to receive less than a B grade from me, and it hit the “donate to the library pile” quicky-quick like.

As Jorie pointed out, it’s hard to get the tone right in a historical romance. And really, I’m not looking for complete accuracy. If I wanted to read a book that’s 100% authentic, I’d pick up some Austen, or Trollope, or Hardy. And there are several romance novel authors who manage to keep me within their world even as they utilize huge honkin’ anachronisms, such as using the word “sex” to refer to sexual intercourse or genitalia. How do they do it? By getting the rhythm of the language right. By using words that just sound old-fashioned (ref. my really silly nitpick regarding “grippe” vs. “influenza” in my review for To Love a Scottish Lord). By refraining from having their nineteeth-century British aristocrats say something like “You’re kidding me,” or ” The investigator has a couple of leads that might prove who tried to make you look guilty.”

Above and beyond technicalities like language and details of the era, a lot of historical romances also have extremely modern characters. They think like modern people, they act like modern people, and—perhaps worst of all—they indulge in a lot of very modern navel-gazing and psychoanalysis.

Take, for instance, two different tortured heroes from two different time periods: Allegreto of Shadowheart and Lucien of Dancing on the Wind. Both these books have immovable spots on my keeper shelf, and the two men qualify as two of my favorite romance novel heroes. But Allegreto strikes me as a character who is much more true to his time period than Lucien. He never analyzes why he finds so much pleasure in sexual pain; in fact, he’s convinced he’s going to burn in hell for enjoying what Elena does to him. At the end of the book, I KNOW Elena will keep on hurting him in the bedroom, Allegreto will keep on lovin’ it, and both of them will still be convinced that what they’re doing is unnatural and sinful—but like just about everyone else, they’ll ignore the proscription because it feels too damn good and go to confession as necessary to make peace with their consciences. There’s no feel-good, “Oh, it’s not bad if it’s two consenting adults expressing their love in different ways” kind of a resolution—which is great, because it prevents the book from being squishy, and it prevents the book from feeling too modern. I also like how Allegreto doesn’t really ponder on the role his father had in forming him. Instead, the author provides glimpses into his past, which in turn allow us, the readers, to draw our own conclusions about him and what makes him tick.

Lucien, on the other hand, goes into protracted discussions with the heroine about the effect the death of his twin sister had on him, and the effect the heroine’s twin sister’s disappearance might have on her. They talk about the bond between twins in somewhat modern terms, and analyze themselves quite thoroughly. These are the scenes I never re-read when I pick the book up. And every Putney book I can think of has these spiritual healing sequences in which the protagonists look into their pasts, pinpoint what’s making them nuts, address the issue head-on and then allow themselves to let go of the pain, which strikes me as a very modern process. Without reading The Bartered Bride, I can tell you right now there will be a scene in which Alexandra, who’s been raped, is going to go through something like that with the help of the hero.

I’m just not convinced that people knew and accepted the impact their pasts had in shaping their psychological present and future before Freud came along and demanded we tell him about our mothers. Shit, I doubt people before the late twentieth century acknowledged psychological reality and its importance in quite the concrete way we do nowadays. People also placed a lot of importance in heredity—“blood will tell” and all that. Fuck nurture, nature’s where it’s at, baby, hence all the delightful theories about inherently inferior races and classes.

So how does Allegreto, a character whom I think is a pretty convincing product of his time, deal with his past and find his peace? He tries to seek absolution with the Church, and through the Church, with God Himself. Now that strikes me as being more appropriate for the time he inhabits.

But as with everything else, I want my historical accuracy to go only so far, and no further. I don’t want to read about historically accurate heroes who believe, say, that too much reading and thinking will cause a woman’s womb to shrink. Similarly, I can’t deal with heroes who engage in slavery, either as traders or property owners. I just can’t buy into the idea that a hero can own or trade slaves yet still be capable of being truly heroic according to my effete modern sensibilities. And while we’re talking about suspension of realism, I want my heroes to smell nice, still have all their teeth and not be bloated, gouty and syphilitic by the time they’re 45.

So to summarize: I want my characters to be historically accurate, but not too accurate, and the setting to be convincing, but without dwelling on the fact that there was no running water or toilet paper which meant performing oral sex on somebody before they took their annual bath involved either a lot of courage or a completely non-existent sense of smell, oh and I want everyone in the book to sound real, which means avoiding words that sound modern even if they were coined way back in the day. That’s not too tall an order, is it?

See, I’m not hard to please at all.


Ranty McRant

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Sarah says:

    I see that – and I raise you the “hero who knows too much about the history and global context of whatever business he is currently involved in, thereby showing off the depth of the research the author has done.” Not only does it yank me out of the story, but it is unlikely that the hero, especially in a historical when information traveled so slowly, would have such a grasp on the larger, global consequences of his own business ventures.

  2. 2
    Jorie says:

    Yes, I love that Kinsale’s heroes do not analyze themselves.  Take Samuel in The Shadow and the Star—it would have ruined the book if he’d analyzed how his abusive childhood had affected how he felt about sex, or why he wanted to marry his foster sister.

    (Sorry, cannot seem to resist any chance whatsoever to talk about TSATS!)

    And stds and rakes, you’ve gotta wonder.  In fact, I couldn’t help thinking about poor Samuel and stds.  But I’d only want to deal with that with a time travel or sff setting where it could be cured.

  3. 3
    Maili says:

    You’ve listed the main reason why I couldn’t get into MJP’s historical romances. I agree with what you were saying until you mentioned personal hygiene. That’s where you lost me.

    Why is it that, when comes to discussing historical accuracy, people have to mention personal hygiene and such?

    I mean, consider this fact: “[…] most Americans did not brush their teeth until Army soldiers brought their enforced habits of tooth brushing back home after World War II”. Although toilet paper was first produced in China in the 14th century,  toilet rolls [first introduced in approx. 1920s] weren’t that common until 1940s in most Western countries, including the UK and the US. Yet no one said a thing about personal hygiene in pre-WWII-setting novels.

    Do we really want to know about the basic needs and basic medical issues in contemporary romances, e.g. the heroine’s need to go to the loo and such? I think it’s easy to assume that we don’t.

    So, why the need to associate the status of personal hygiene with historical accuracy?  This is a thing I don’t really understand.

    To me, historical accuracy is a good take on the zeitgeist of a time period used in a story. This includes mentality, personal beliefs and prejudices, outlooks, speech and such.

  4. 4
    Maili says:

    P.S. I agree with you on the current trend of having the h/h psychoanalysing their issues and relationships. Too weird for my taste! :D

  5. 5
    Candy says:

    I brought up personal hygiene because I’m a spoiled little bitch who loves her running water and toilet paper, and who would get THOROUGHLY squicked out at the thought of the generous multitude of flora surrounding the average protagonist’s Happy Bits if a historical novel were thoroughly realistic. I mean, have you noticed how often characters in historical romances take a bath? Much, much, MUCH more often than the average person did back in Ye Olden Days. I don’t mind those bathing scenes because I’m all “Whoo-hoo, clean Happy Bits!” This is very much a modern sensibility and an illustration of how inconsistent I am in terms of how realistic I want my books to be.

    And thanks for the info on how recent regular teeth-brushing and toilet paper usage are—now I can be squicked out about hygiene in all but the most recent contemporary novels ;-) . For what it’s worth, I haven’t read ANY romance novels set in WWII, or even WWI—there seems great big blank between 1880 and 1980 in terms of an acceptable period setting for a typical romance novel.

  6. 6
    Susan says:

    I’ve been reading and enjoying your blog for weeks, but this is my first comment.  I’m an aspiring writer working on a Regency historical.  Except it’s really more of a Peninsular War historical—much more battlefield than ballroom.  And I’m here to talk about toothbrushes, of all things.  According to one of my research tomes, the 60 lbs. of gear carried by your average infantry soldier included a toothbrush and soap.  How often they used either, who knows, but I think that’s justification enough to allow a reader to imagine reasonably hygienic Regency heroes.

  7. 7
    Fair says:

    I agree that it’s OK for romance novels to romanticize the past—after all, they’re “romance” novels, not “reality” novels. So let the heroine spend too much time in her bathtub, that’s fine with me.

    But the problem for me is that historical romances aren’t romanticizing the past—they’re really about the present. Take a modern hero, a modern heroine, a modern plot, modern dialogue, modern psychoanalysis, then slap the label “Regency England” on it all and call it a historical romance. That’s where the books go wrong.

    I wish I could tell writers: Old-fashioned dialogue is romantic… use it. I hear people use modern slang all the time. In a historical romance, I want romantic historical dialogue. The past provides so much fodder for romance—so why just give us the 21st century in Regency garb?

  8. 8
    Ace says:

    georgette heyer my friends. Brutally historically accurate without sounding practices or forced in to the book. Very good plots and if you want to know any more. GOOGLE IT! Throws the rest of the contemporary romances out the window by a long shot. Also, i might add she’s credited for single handedly making regency romance as we know it today (mind you it aint much to brag about now, but when she was alive she was something like a Jane austen of her time. Quite original! Very Witty!)

Comments are closed.

↑ Back to Top