On historickiness, and ahistoricity

Evil Auntie Peril wrote one of the most fascinating series of articles I’ve read in a while about selective filtering in romances. Essentially, she points out that certain types of details or tropes make it into romance novels because they’d be “historically accurate” (e.g., heroes who rape the heroine), but others are decidedly excluded because, while they may (or may not) be historically accurate, they’re icky, and pull you out of the fantasy—and chief among them is the issue of cleanliness.

Go read the four-part post. READ IT. Go on. I’ll wait for you. It’s intelligent and thought-provoking, and it features some brilliantly awful puns. Also a link to my new favorite Muppet video of all time.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Done reading? Good.

So reading those posts was a nice coincidence, because I’ve been thinking a lot about the sorts of historical details and other tricks of worldbuilding that authors include in their stories, and the details they choose to omit. EAP is correct in that historicals tell us more about the times they’re written in than the times they supposedly depict. One of the most stark ways we can see that is the way authors create short-hand for villainy and otherness. As EAP pointed out, physical cleanliness is a proxy for spiritual purity or moral uprightness. If somebody in a romance novel has rotting teeth or smells weird, they’re not just going to bad, they’re going to be naaaaaaasty, and the hero and heroine are going to be distinguished from this nastiness, whatever the actual state of physical hygiene happened to be in Ye Olden Dayes of Yore for gently-bred people. Our hero and heroine, after all, are not ordinary people. They’re not part of the unwashed masses, regardless of which social stratum they inhabit within the universe of the book.

You can see this sort of thing with food: the depictions of food, and the way the protagonists react to food. I was recently re-reading a book set in late 19th-century San Francisco, and when the hero and heroine make a foray into Chinatown, one of the culture shock-y things that happens is that they’re both grossed-out at the sight of roast chickens and ducks hung up in restaurant windows with their heads intact. When they have lunch, the food’s delicious but filled with squidgy poultry bits that they’re both afraid to inquire into. I can maybe understand it coming from the hero, who’s more of a city boy (but given that he’s a poor Jewish Ukrainian immigrant, I have a feeling he’s probably seen and eaten his share of animal organs, too), but the heroine was raised on a farm. A farm. In 19th-century rural California. I mean, surely she’s seen a chicken or two beheaded in her time?

See, this whole eating-food-without-faces thing is a relatively recent development—industrial agriculture and improvements in transportation allowed meat to be produced, processed and packaged in ways they never had before, frozen and then shipped off to far locations. All of a sudden, if you wanted chicken (and you weren’t rich enough to employ people to do the dirty job for you), you didn’t have to kill and clean it yourself, or go to a market and get somebody to cut the neck for you while you waited—you could get the chicken, plucked, cleaned, cut into quarters and stuffed into tidy styrofoam packages. Similarly, meat was enough of a rarity and a treat that people in the not-so-distant past were more used to eating organ meat and using up all parts of the animal than we are today; relatively high-end restaurants and wealthy households in the aforementioned Ye Olden Dayes of Yore served items like heart, liver, kidney, tongue and other bits we’re used to seeing as rather oogy.

But this isn’t about the historical inaccuracy per se, though the hero and heroine’s squeamishness did stop me in my tracks for a few seconds. It’s about how that detail was used, and this detail was quite clearly used in a way to Show How Furrin the Chinese Are. It was a way to set up Chinatown and the Chinese as Other, as Exotic, as Not Who We Are, We Who Consume Mostly Muscle Meat and Turn Green When There’re Pink Bits In Our Roast Chicken. The details regarding the Chinese food and the roast ducks in the display window weren’t used to villainize the Chinese characters, in the way personal hygiene is used to villainize other people in historicals, but the hero and heroine’s squick reaction solicited a similar squick reaction in the reader, and hence encouraged her to empathize more with the characters. And I think this sort of thing says a lot about our current relationship with food: the ways we’ve removed ourselves from the immediacy of death that’s a necessity when we eat just about anything, but especially when we eat meat, and the way industrial agriculture, modern marketing and fast food culture (among other things) have taught us to see muscle meat as the only (or primarily) edible bits of an animal, with everything else being, y’know, gross. And squidgy. And not what entirely respectable people eat.

To make a sideways jump: Something that’s jumped to my attention recently was how authors use body weight, especially in male characters, as a way of indicating Super Duper Concentrated Villainy (Evil Nature Established in only 1/3 the Wordcount!). Obesity in women is treated with more sensitivity in romances, with overweight heroines getting their day in a few stories, but obesity in men? Oh dear. They’re signs of emasculation at best, and both emasculation and villainy at worst. Take, for example, the distant relative Evangeline Jenner was supposed to marry in Lisa Kleypas’ Devil in Winter. He’s fat. So fat, he has trouble getting out of carriages, and pretty much overwhelms Evie during a kidnapping attempt by squashing her. The book also makes it clear that he doesn’t lust after Evie; his appetite is reserved for food—and what’s implied is that this just ain’t natural. What kind of man doesn’t want a prime bit of flesh like Evie for her feminine charms? Only a fuh-reak who likes food far too much for his own good.

An even more recent example can be found in Loretta Chase’s Don’t Tempt Me. The heroine, Zoe Lexham, is kidnapped and sold into a pasha’s harem, and he gives her to his eldest son as a present. Zoe’s virginity is left intact, but only because Ali, the son, has some sort of erectile dysfunction—and is fat. Fat fat fat. Zoe likens kissing him to kissing a piece of furniture. Here, the body weight isn’t so much used as an element of villainy as it is a reinforcement of his emasculation: not only can’t Ali get the ol’ soldier to salute the general, his entire body is dehumanized via obesity.

And again, whether this reflects an accurate historical attitude is kind of beside the point, though history abounds with men who were both corpulent and horny, and with sexualized corpulence—I mean, Dionysos/Bacchus is often portrayed as chubby, depending on the era and the artist. What’s happening here has more to do with how contemporary culture desexualizes overweight people, and how overwhelmingly, we associate masculinity with muscularity. I particularly find the leap from emasculation to evil especially interesting, because it’s a theme you see quite a bit in literature in general and romance novels in particular. Oftentimes, I think the villainization is achieved via feminization, because emasculation often brings with it an identification/association with effeminacy, and that almost always leads to villainization of a character. You see it not only with men who are portrayed as fat and sexually impotent and are coded as womanish, but with men who are more explicitly coded as womanish, such as bisexuals, homosexuals or transvestites. (But then I’ve written quite a bit lately about gender portrayals in romance, and won’t rehash that particular topic in this article.)

I’m thinking back to other obese male villains I’ve encountered, and the ones that aren’t emasculated or desexualized tend to be portrayed as sexually perverse: they’re into extreme sadism, or pedophilia, or, I don’t know, clown-rape and gerbils, with an undertone that regular sex just isn’t good enough for them. Corpulent villainy is rarely garden-variety villainy. It’s Villainy Plus. The size of their bodies seems to represent the perversity of their souls, and this is a tried and true method in fiction in general: have the ugliness inside manifest itself outside.

I’m going to be lazy and cheat on the conclusion to this post, and lift from Part 4 of La Peril’s post:

And I could just leave it at that, and go away whistling songs from South Pacific except it doesn’t really deal with one question, and one thorny issue. The question is simply this: how do I know unless I’ve tried it? After all, I can accept all manner of grubbiness in other genres, so why not romance? And wouldn’t a reaaally good writer be able to make it work?

The thorny issue is more worrying to me, though, and it seems to take me right back to my starting point. Although historical dirt only shows up in ye olde Romancelande in controlled conditions, if at all; all manner of other historickiness* is either selectively included in, or selectively removed from the landscape. And what does this say about readers/perceptions of readers?

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Vicki says:

    I admit, I do sometimes pause and wonder at the 16th century damsel insisting on bathing. Even handwashing was not practiced by physicians, let alone midwives and healers, two centuries ago. If it is a minor slip, I can forgive it but I must admit I am still obsessing forty years later over that line in Devil Water by Seton (good book, btw) where the farmer’s daughter’s breath “smelled like violets.” Even as a child, I knew that was unlikely.

  2. 2
    Candy says:

    I think we want the doctors and midwives portrayed as religious handwashers in our romance novels because otherwise, we’d have to confront the reality of just how dangerous childbirth was back in the day, and there’s no bigger bonerdeath in romance than the strong possibility of the heroine dying while giving birth to the hero’s child.

  3. 3
    Lynz says:

    Candy: I think the doctor/midwife thing depends on the specific book to a degree, though. I know I’ve read quite a few books in which it’s mentioned how dangerous childbirth is, oh noes! When done well, it can be hilarious, like in Deborah Simmons’ Maiden Bride, in which the hero is afraid the heroine will get pregnant and die due to complications, so he decides to just stop having sex with her. I laughed my ass off while reading that part, especially his futile attempts to resist her subsequent seduction. And I recently read At the King’s Command (originally Circle in the Water) by Susan Wiggs, which falls into the “all doctors are quacks” category I’ve seen almost anytime a heroine has knowledge of healing. The doctors in these tend to be more historically accurate, and their lack of modern-day standards makes the heroine’s amazing, surprisingly modern healing abilities seem even more awesome.

    About the Fat People are Evil thing… obesity in women being treated as anything other than a sign of evil is great, but it seems more of a New Skool romance thing, not a longstanding rule. I mean, think about, say, The Flame and the Flower. The heroine’s aunt is evil, and what does she look like? She’s fat. Based on the ones I’ve forced myself to read, I think using obesity in women to show that they were evil was actually pretty common in Old Skool romances. Then one day someone in a romance publisher’s marketing department was taking the subway to work and saw a non-model-thin woman reading a romance and had a flash of genius: “Oh my God, curvy girls read romance too! No way!” Though even now, most of the “overweight heroines” I read about are still more curvy than actually fat. There are exceptions, of course, but most of them aren’t really all that large.

    Anyway, I don’t think it’s just obesity that’s used to show the supervillany of a character. It’s anything that deviates from a relatively standardized and healthy weight. You know the really skinny characters? They’re bad guys too! Because they’re so busy plotting evil schemes that they forget to eat, or something like that! And in women, it seems to be the new obesity: how many psycho ex-girlfriends look like models or are stick-thin? The myriads of Harlequin series heroines who are models are all, of course, remarkably curvy considering their profession, which shows their inherent goodness. *snort*

  4. 4
    Chani says:

    Loved the posts from EAP and your take on it too.

    Taking up your point of masculinty = muscularity, the one I keep noticing recently is that every H must be ‘tall’, standing heads and shoulders amongst the unwashed masses. Is this the writer attempts to address the fact that people back is ye olde times were generally shorter than today’s average and that a modern reader could not find a H shorter than her attractive? (Even if they are taller than the h – although this is another issue – has there ever been a romance where the H is shorter than the h??)

  5. 5
    madam lasagna says:

    EAP is correct in that historicals tell us more about the times they’re written in than the times they supposedly depict.

    When I read this it reminded me of those paintings of the Nativity done in the Renaissance with all the characters dressed in an elegance completely inappropriate to the social times and most certainly the subject. It must be in our nature to try to portray history and tell stories about it from our viewpoint. I have to admit I don’t want to read about stink and filth in a romance. Still, I find it jarring to read about perfect white teeth and frequent changes of clothing, hair washing, etc. Oh, d*mn! Maybe, I don’t want to think much at all when I read a romance. Sigh…So shallow!

  6. 6

    There’s a difference between historical fiction and historical romance.  I could write a hero who has some noticeably missing teeth, one shoulder higher than the other from a botched bone setting and body lice, but would you want to read it?  Or write a heroine who after three pregnancies has bladder leakage issues?  Do you really want to have that in your romance novel?

    I don’t think so.  Neither do the publishers.  And frankly, if you ask yourself, gentle reader, you probably don’t want it either.  I’m all for accuracy in setting my stories with appropriate food, clothing,  washing, medical care (I have a surgeon/hero wipe his scalpel on his sleeve to get the gore off ‘cause that’s accurate), but I also don’t want to yank the reader out of the story by my insistence on too much showing of real life as short, nasty and brutish.

  7. 7
    Cat Marsters says:

    Re: height and muscularity in heroes.  Any anthropologist will tell you that we’re programmed to find certain things attractive in the opposite sex.  A man must be capable of feeding and defending his family, and a woman must be able to bear and rear children.  It’s a caveman mentality, but it’s there in our hindbrains.  And it was more apparent in days past when feeding and defending one’s family was much more a part of daily life for a lot of men than it is now (modern feeding = earning money, going to supermarket, cooking dinner.  Not so much hunting and slaughtering.  I hope).

    Therefore…a tall, muscular man had the genetic advantage over a short, unfit one.  And while a certain amount of chubbiness might be socially acceptable in periods and societies where physical work was deemed unfashionable, the extreme—obesity or cadaverous thinness—was quite unacceptable.  Obesity in particular would denote a person unable to control their appetites, as opposed to a person simply able to afford plenty of food.

    Look at social attitudes to excess—the Victorians for example were horrified by excess in any way, and satire of the time (think Dickens or Thackeray or popular cartoons) portrayed the very thin or very fat as, at best, objects of ridicule, or at worst, plain evil.  The Tudors, on the other hand, who liked to show off whenever they could, made a virtue of size: look at that portrait of Henry VIII where he’s almost cuboid.  As for the Romans…well, they had a freaking god of wine.  Excess was the mane of the game.

  8. 8

    I agree with Darlene.  I want to be as accurate as I can in my story, but I don’t want to get too descriptive of the characters nasty habits as they would have really been.  I think such things in a romance would definitely be a buzz kill.

  9. 9
    Cat Marsters says:

    Did I say mane of the game?  Typo…but I kinda like it.

  10. 10
    nutmeag says:

    This theme has been driving me crazy lately, as I’m in the middle of a book where the hero’s teeth are constantly gleaming white,  and the heroine’s lips are glistening as she takes her two baths every day . . . and this all takes place in the 1300s in a super dirty, old castle.

    It’s one thing to not talk about the state of dirtiness, and another to emphasize how clean everyone is. That’s just taking it too far.

    And I’m with Chani, how the hell did Regency England get so many huge men walking around?!? And it’s not that they’re just tall, they’re freakin’ huge. I’ll admit that most of my family is quite tall (excluding me), but even my farmer uncles and dad aren’t massively buffed, and they work in fields all day. I have a hard time imagining all these Regency dudes sitting around and lifting weights all day (they’re too busy ravishing the heroines, of course), which is the only way they could get so ripped—one does not get muscly from sitting in clubs, drinking, playing cards, and riding horses.

  11. 11
    Elizabeth Wadsworth says:

    I agree wih all who have mentioned that historical accuracy aside, endless descriptions of filth, disease, and missing teeth would most likely be a turn-off to a reader—any reader, not just a modern one. 

    Even in “real”  medieval romances such as the 12th century Aucassin and Nicolette, the heroine is depicted as the epitome of beauty, grace, and elegance—“so white that the daisies under her feet appeared black by contrast” or some such thing, (which I find hilarious considering she’s supposed to be a Moor from Carthage, but I digress.)  The Knights of the Round Table are all handsome, strong, and the peak of muscular perfection, with no mention of them losing their teeth or hair or picking lice off themselves. 

    And Jane Austen spares us from endless descriptions of fleas, body odor, primitive lavatory arrangements, and so on, even though Lizzie Bennet and her sisters would undoubtedly have to deal with such things (can you imagine having all those teenage daughters and no plumbing?  The mind boggles.)

    So I think there’s a certain degree of escapism in literature, regardless of the time period in which it’s written.

    spamword:  farm26—no, I wouldn’t like to be living on a farm in 1826, thank you very much.

  12. 12
    Diatryma says:

    I also was a little weirded out by Evie’s fat cousin, not least because he was presented as complicit/passive/self-indulgent.  Then there was the final villain, who had… syphilis?  Well, an STD, which made him depraved, evil, and leprous.  Any of her characters with chronic or permanent conditions are handwaved away or charismatically ill—okay, same book, Ivo Jenner dies of tuberculosis, that was well-done.  But in general.

    I’m not sure how to handle things like that—including disease without making it pretty—but I would like to see it handled in a lot of different ways until I find the right one.  Outright fat hatred?  Not okay.

  13. 13
    Bev Stephans says:

    About the only thing I remember from reading “Forever Amber” was Amber taking a bath and picking lice off of herself, then cracking them.  Eeewwww!!!

  14. 14
    Amanda says:

    What interests me is the way readers pick and choose which historical details to expect or gloss over. In a bulletin board discussion of a certain book that has the h/h on the run across Regency London for a week, a couple of readers found the notion of h/h having sex after aforementioned time on the lam icky since there was no time for a bath beforehand. And spanked the author for not having them bathe or not mentioning their dirt. But I would wager that these same readers would be horrified if the author had mentioned the dirt or the h/h’s bad breath and stinky feet.

    My own philosophy is that historical romance is fantasy and I expect and appreciate a certain historical amnesia on the author’s part when it comes to unpleasant historical detail. Do I expect the h/h to smell of deodorant and aftershave? No, but unless it propels the story forward in some way I don’t expect or want to know that the hero and heroine are kind of gross after a few days without bathing. Being on the lam does move the story foreward. Body odor does not.

  15. 15
    Katie says:

    I’m definitely the middle-of-the-road type: you don’t have to go out of your way to be historically truthful, as long as you don’t go out of your way to demonstrate virtue by today’s standards either.  Depictions of shining teeth and fresh-scrubbed limbs are just as offputting as descriptions of realistic body odors and health care. 

    I’ve always somewhat disliked books that overexert themselves physically describing someone – besides the danger of veering too close to stereotype (as in the obesity trope) it also limits the reader. Books which don’t go overboard on irrelevant physical characteristics (and more often than not, the size of your boobs and color of your hair are not relevant) let the reader put him or herself in the books more, which adds to your enjoyment.

  16. 16
    LIsa says:

    Thanks for the comment on villainizing heavy men. As feminists, we’ve pushed for better treatment of all women regardless of appearance – we should insist on the same for men as well. Somebody posted earlier that there were a lot of fat women villains. I remember mostly female vilains being too skinny (hollow cheeks, beaked nose, beady eyes, skeletal hands) but I can’t think of a good example right now.

    I can think of a few books with heavy heroes. One isn’t romance. It’s Barbara Hambly’s Sisters of the Raven, where the hero is a heavy guy really into poetry, the arts, gourmet food, and it’s funny because he’s the king in a fantasty novel. Usually that guy has to be fighitng fit and muscular like Aragorn or something. He talks about how hard it is to be the pudgy artistic king when everybody expects a giant warrior.

    The other author is romance. Carla Kelly has a couple of heavy heroes. The one I remember best is Scipio Butterworth in Miss Milton Speaks her Mind. He’s described as tall but also very broad and heavy all over, a solid kind of guy.

  17. 17
    Lizzie (greeneyed fem) says:

    Any anthropologist will tell you that we’re programmed to find certain things attractive in the opposite sex . . . Therefore…a tall, muscular man had the genetic advantage over a short, unfit one.

    I don’t want to start a discussion where everyone starts listing their personal preferences, but I really hate blanket statements about what “women” and “men” as two separate and non-overlapping categories find attractive. We’re all individuals (and some of us are bisexual, gay, queer, etc) and we all have different traits that draw us to the people we’re attracted to.

    So as just one counter-example: I happen to find short, confident men INCREDIBLY sexy.** The world tells a short dude that he’s not as desirable as a tall dude, so a short guy who can look up at his girlfriend/wife/partner and still radiate confidence? Rowr. I would love to read a romance where the heroine has a few inches on the hero.

    And actually, I really hate h/h physical pairings in romance where the man is HUGE and the woman is TEENY and there’re all these descriptions of how he can just lift her up and spin her around and throw her over his shoulder. I actually get a slight feeling of panic/ickiness thinking about how vulnerable she is physically. Even if I love and totally trust the hero!

    On topic, I really agree with nutmeag: I’m totally okay with the omission of certain details unsavory to the modern reader (smells, dirt, where one urinates, even leg hair on the women), but purposefully emphasizing anachronistic physical traits (shining white teeth and breath like violets) is jarring and elicits a little “yeah, right!” in my brain.

    Weight sometimes works like this, I think—authors will say vague things about the heroine’s curves, and the reader can just project their own beauty and weight ideal onto her.

    Childbirth is hard, I think, in historicals. For some reason, I’m fine with Regencies, but I just finished a Jo Beverley medieval romance where William the Conqueror’s wife has a prolonged labor scene (she comes through it fine), but it really made me nervous for when the heroine would get pregnant, even though it wasn’t in the book. I became aware that the h/h had just fallen in love and might only get a year of bliss before she could potentially die.

    **Disclaimer: This does not apply to Tom Cruise. Him, I would stand in line to kick in the shin.

  18. 18
    Beret Brenckman says:

    Knowing that balls during the Regency period were stinky and hot and probably unbearably “icky” keeps my eyes floating gently over too graphic descriptions.  Every Regency ball, rout, etc. should have Mr. Darcy – dashing and beautiful Colin Firth – smelling great and looking better.  I’m glad I don’t have to read about bowel movements and rotting teeth and lice or sex with a really ripe woman who doesn’t have toilet paper.  Thank you all writers who leave that out!

  19. 19
    JoanneL says:

    There’s a difference between historical fiction and historical romance.

    Do you really want to have that in your romance novel?

    I don’t think so.  Neither do the publishers.  And frankly, if you ask yourself, gentle reader, you probably don’t want it either.

    There you go.  All of that—- for me anyway—-  Darlene, exactly.
    If it’s a romance, tell me a good story.  Some will nit-pic away at things but If I want to know more or need more accurate descriptions of the people/era there are sources for that. A romance writer gives me what I want; not necessarily all the facts but a story about love and the journey to a HEA. A fantasy, not a research paper.

  20. 20
    Deb Kinnard says:

    The superb Roberta Gellis once gave us a scene of the heroine (Alinor) bathing and delousing the hero (Ian), so that’s good enough for me.

    I write medievals as well as contemporaries, and I’m always taken aback by the “need to explain” what the ancients did in regards to hygiene. Obviously, they were like us in the 21C. They did what they were accustomed to doing. We take daily showers; they didn’t. When was the last time you read a contemporary novel in which the hero or heroine’s personal hygiene was described in detail (unless they’re playing hide the sausage in the shower)?

    We have many, many stereotypes about how people lived in the middle ages, but they’re rapidly being debunked by careful research. Item: the upper middle class knight was NOT universally shorter than today’s businessman (proven in the UK by accidental discovery of gravesites and armor). People in these centuries DID wash (proven by numerous citations in both art and literature. Medieval town-dwellers did in fact pay attention to basic public health practices (evidenced by legal documents where citizens are fined for emptying nightsoil in the public streets).

    So obviously the amount of detail we want as readers, or writers, is up to us. I’m not lingering on the hygienic differences in my stories, but if it advances my tale to have the hero searching for the privy, I can manage that.

  21. 21
    Candy says:


    Re: height and muscularity in heroes.  Any anthropologist will tell you that we’re programmed to find certain things attractive in the opposite sex.

    I approach these sorts of anthropological statements with some skepticism, not merely because I suspect that cultural influence has a lot to do with what is deemed attractive or desirable and makes the separation of what is innate vs. what is acculturated very difficult, but because there are so many exceptions to the rule. I do think there’s a certain ideal male form for this era, and most authors cater to that, whether consciously or unconsciously.

    I do agree that obesity is seen as excess, and that excess is part of the villainization, and I also agree with the other people who pointed out that excessive weight deviations tend to be markers of villainy. The excessively skinny men aren’t emasculated in the same way—they’re sometimes portrayed as somewhat dry and asexual, and obsessed with other things (religion, money), but not as notably dehumanized as overweight villains.

    I don’t know that anyone’s pushing for graphic descriptions of body odor or filth or the like in a romance novel, because having the squalor become a character in its own right in the way it is in, say, Perfume would be a distraction at best and a complete derailment at worst. Fiction is a process of selective representation, and I’m OK with that, mostly. It’s that process of selective representation that I find most interesting: why we include what we do and why we gloss over or exaggerate other things, and what that says about us collectively, as readers and as a culture. For what it’s worth, I’m with the other people who say that not making a big deal of the dirt OR the unusual cleanliness of the protagonists is probably the best way to go, unless it serves to forward the story in some way. It’s unlikely that they themselves would notice their default state of (un)cleanliness, anyway, because, well, it’s the default state. Making the villain horribly dirty, however: most of the time, I think that’s lazy. Yes, (s)he is Teh Ebil, but there are much more interesting ways to go about showing that, no?

  22. 22
    Mary says:

    I am there with the “no need to explain”. But let me offer one more comment about “hot, icky and uncomfortable”. For the first 20 years of my life I lived in a place where there would be no hot water, and sometimes no water at all, for 3 months at a time in the summer, when temperature would go up to 100F or more. Or no heating in the fall and spring, when temperatures in the house went down to 60F at best. No person that I know bathed more than once a week in those circumstances. And while people used de-odorants, there were no anti-perspirants on sale (so sort of like Regency again – perfume, but nothing to prevent you from sweating). But I do not remember feeling “icky” or itchy or whatever. You were only aware that other people smelled if you were stuck on a very packed bus. So yes, a regency ball probably smelled ;-) But otherwise it was a non-issue.

    I remember people having visitors from abroad, and talking in shocked tones how those folks wanted a bath on arrival, where this carrying around and heating up buckets of water. And then I lived in the West for 5 years, and something changed. When I come back, I notice the smells a lot more. I am uncomfortable if I have traveled for the entire day, and arrive to discover that there is no hot water. I feel icky if I haven’t had a shower for several days.

    Of course, I would have had a horrified reaction hearing about lice, even 10 years ago. I think it just goes to show that belaboring the point about sanitation does not make it more historically accurate – the people in past probably felt OK if they were “averagely clean”, even if this was dirty by our modern standards. And describing a tavern, or alley,  or whatever as “grimy” while the hero and heroine are clean is probably accurate, too, because they would have experienced it as grimy (i.e. dirtier than they are accustomed to), and this would have been an indication of a bad place.
    So unless cleanliness is over-described, that’s how I take all those things – I don’t think about them much, but I take on faith that the hero and heroine are comfortable, and attractive to each other, within the standards of their own time.

  23. 23
    hapax says:

    I loves me some short heroes, but the only ones I can think of are in fantasy and sf;  Megan Turner’s Eugenides, all of Sharon Lee / Steve Miller’s Liaden heroes, and of course Lois Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan (“He’s not short; he’s concentrated”) —and they all get wonderful romantic story arcs.

    The only obese male hero (sort of) I can think of is the above mentioned Miles’s brother (sort of) Mark, and while he definitely has, err, different sexual inclinations, he also gets a happy romance.

    So obviously it *can* be done, and done well;  why isn’t it done more often in straight up romance?

    (verification word:  market56:  There’s definitely a market for at least 56 of these titles!)

  24. 24
    Mary Frances says:

    Speaking of a realistic evocation of historical eras, does anyone but me still remember the childbirth scene in Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter? I swear, that episode gave me nightmares for weeks, even in the original 1920s translation.

  25. 25
    Estelle Chauvelin says:

    Count me in the “they wouldn’t have been thinking about it, so why go into details” camp.  I remember a book with a time traveling hero (more of a fantasy than a straight up romance, but there was romance) in which, while briefly back in the twentieth century, a buddy asked him if the woman he’d met while in eighteenth century Scotland had hairy legs.  His answer was something like “by the time I got to see them, I didn’t care.”

    I find myself a little disturbed now, though, because now I’m thinking about how the hero raping the heroine is (or at minimum, was in Old School) apparently a more acceptable case of historical accuracy than not bathing daily.

  26. 26
    Robin says:

    We have many, many stereotypes about how people lived in the middle ages, but they’re rapidly being debunked by careful research. Item: the upper middle class knight was NOT universally shorter than today’s businessman (proven in the UK by accidental discovery of gravesites and armor). People in these centuries DID wash (proven by numerous citations in both art and literature. Medieval town-dwellers did in fact pay attention to basic public health practices (evidenced by legal documents where citizens are fined for emptying nightsoil in the public streets).


    This is one of the frustrating things for both authors and readers, I think—that is, the stereotypes we have about the past are not always true.

    Take the rape the woman one, for example. While it is true that previous to the 1980s in the US, for example, marital rape was not recognizes as a criminal offense, it is not correct to say that every rape in historical Romance is justified by the historical circumstances. It is *not* true, even in cultures where women were recognized in terms we would conceptualize as property (although even that is very complex as it relates to cultural and historical context), that didn’t mean that women were not valued. In fact, when you hold something as property, in some cases you take better care of that thing (just ask any of the Irish immigrants were came to the US during the 19th century by ship how much better treated they were than cargo that was perceived to have economic value). 

    But anyway, my point is that while certain aspects of Romance are definitely sanitized, it is also the case that 1) as someone pointed out above, if you are inside a culture, you often don’t notice things that an outsider would, 2) what is “white” or “black” or whatever is relative to the context, and 3) our *perceptions* of what is right and wrong historically can and are often wrong.

    I remember a number of years ago when this discussion came up on the AAR boards, and an author of Medieval Romance who was also an historian talked about how wrong we were in our perceptions that people in the Middle Ages did not bathe regularly. I suspect that there are still many readers who either don’t think about it enough to have it register, or who think that’s a modernized addition to a “barbaric” historical moment.

    Also, regarding childbirth, with all of our newfangled medicine, it’s still the most dangerous medical condition a woman can be in, and IIRC the number one cause of death to pregnant women in the US is homicide. Also, the rates of unwarranted cesarean births is amazingly high, creating incredible risks with MORE medical intervention. So just because something’s modern doesn’t mean it’s better or cleaner or safer.

  27. 27
    JoanneL says:

    Making the villain horribly dirty, however: most of the time, I think that’s lazy. Yes, (s)he is Teh Ebil, but there are much more interesting ways to go about showing that, no?

    @Candy: YES! I’m laughing about ‘Ebil’ but it’s so true. I love, love, love it when the villain is difficult to find in a cast of characters. Do all stalkers or rapists or murderers have clammy hands? Are they all fat? Are they all short? All sloppy? All reek of alcohol?  WTF? The FBI would have nothing to do if that where true.

    I find that lazy writing issue particularly annoying when it comes to the ex-husband or wife in romances. Are all exes mean, nasty and/or carrying an uzi?

    Fortunately we have a lot of great romance writers who don’t take short-cuts.

  28. 28
    Deb says:

    I have really enjoyed reading this post, the links, and all the comments.  I’m glad someone mentioned Anya Seton—“Katherine” was the first historical romance I read (back in the pre-“Sweet Savage Love” days of the early 1970s) and it contains a minor backstory about Katherine’s maid, Hawise, whose teeth get progressively worse during the 30 years covered in the book, while there are some occasional references to Katherine using myrrh (did I spell that correctly?) to keep her teeth clean and decay-free.

    Regarding short(er) heroes:  Several of Mary Balogh’s books feature heroes who are shorter than average; and, in a couple of them, the hero is shorter than the heroine.  I love the way she makes the hero good and decent without having to make him six-foot-six.

    As for where the food came from in ye olden days, there’s a Jennifer Blake romance (can’t remember the title) where the hero and heroine are travelling through the wilds of 18th century Louisiana and the hero captures some squirrels.  The heroine matter-of-factly skins them and prepares them for a meal.  Blake doesn’t go into detail, but she lets the reader know that this would have been part of life for a woman in Louisiana at that time.

    I don’t want too many anachronisms in my historical romance reading; but, by the same token, I don’t want my nose rubbed in all the ick, as it were.  I suspect that because we’re all 21st century women who for the most part bathe regularly, use deoderant & perfume, shave our legs and armpits, and put on clean underwear daily, we want our heroines to reflect that whenever possible.

  29. 29

    For more hygiene in historicals, read ones set in ancient Rome. They were nuts about their baths.

    For historical novels that really get into the gritty, try Jane Lockwood’s (Janet Mullany’s pseudonym) erotic historical FORBIDDEN SHORES. Not precisely a romance, though. Just warning you. But really, really into exactly how hard it is to make a sea crossing, not to mention the horror of sugar plantations. Gorgeous story. I loved it.

  30. 30
    Carrie Lofty says:

    Ah, Candy, I’m glad you’re here. Don’t know how long you can stay, but I’ve missed your cuntmonkey voice.

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