Monday, February 13, 2006

Accuracy in the historical romance?

Good morning!
That old discussion topic has emerged yet again. Should a historical romance be as accurate as possible, or doesn’t it matter?
While it’s true that a romance is a romance is a romance (sorry, Gertrude!) there are distinct genres, and historical romance is one of the largest, both in North America and in the UK.
Now what follows is my opinion and my opinion only, but as an avid reader of historical romance, as well as an enthusiastic writer, I do feel entitled to some kind of opinion. Feel perfectly free to disagree!
When I read one of the less accurate romances, I feel cheated. The writer has used the genre to show a fairytale time which I’m not interested in, and the characters do things that they just would not have done in this era. It’s not just mistakes with history, it’s attitudes and ideas that are changed. So I feel I'm not really reading a historical romance.
I’ve read all the following in Regency romances (my favourite genre):
An earl who passes the title to his younger brother, an illegitimate son who inherits a title, and an American who inherits an English peerage. None of these are possible.
I’ve also read books containing these plot points: a peer marries a known courtesan and she becomes a society hostess, an unmarried woman enters society on her own, without a chaperone, a book where a peer is condemned because he is in ‘trade.’ None of these are at all likely, and depict a Regency I don’t know. Literary license is one thing; going against the way people thought and acted is another.
Now the counter arguments I’ve often heard. First the “we don’t want to read a history book, we want to read a romance” one. Writing screeds of history that are irrelevant to the story, instead of an involving story is bad writing, too, in a novel. But the history in the story should, surely, be as accurate as the author can make it.
“We all make mistakes, nobody can get it perfect.” Nobody’s asking anyone to do that. Even the Divine Georgette made mistakes. But she tried very hard not to, and had an enormous library of research books.
And the “Who cares, if the romance is good” argument. Okay, this one has some merit, if you look on romance novels as just entertainment. But I’ve come across readers who know nothing about history, but instinctively sense when something is wrong. It doesn’t help the suspension of disbelief.
May I emphasise that it’s ‘horses for courses.’ I don’t like inaccurate romances, but many readers don’t care. I really don’t want to spoil their reading, but for my own sake, I’d like more attention to detail, because then I’d have more great books to read!
Lastly, I want to tell you the thing that really made my mind up about accuracy in historicals. I wrote a book (it’s not published) using the Battle of Corunna in the opening chapter. I read personal accounts of the suffering the people involved went through, heartbreaking letters and journals, as well as the terrible accounts of the battle and what led up to it in the press and the official records. It was brought home to me that this time was real, these people existed. The Regency isn’t just a playground for me and other writers, it mattered.
So I try to keep my stories as accurate in its historical details as I can as a tribute to them, the people who lived and breathed at that time in history.
Plus, I try to tell an involving, sexy and exciting story!

Lynne Connolly, The Return of the Gothic: Romance with a Dark Edge
SEASON OF STORMS, a new historical paranormal romance from Triskelion Publishing


Anonymous said...


I think you're absolutely right. When readers pick up a historical romance they are entitled to a book that features a strong romance as well as an authentic setting.

I am prepared to overlook minor mistakes, but there is no way that I am going to be willing to forgive an author who ignores the mores and norms of the era and who makes her characters speak dialogue that sounds suspiciously like contemporary American dialogue.

There are plenty of writers who manage to capture the feel of the past and if certain writers cannot than maybe they should not be writing historicals.

Historical Romance Author said...

Lynne,the younger brother of an Earl will inherit if there are no legitimate heirs- or do you mean that the earl just hands over the title whilst he is still alive?
Also an American in direct line of descent can inherit- for instance if the heir married an American and had children who were Americans - his son could still inherit. Also there is a famous courtesan, whse name escapes me, who did marry a Duke and becopme part of society.
I know I have made a monor historical error in my latst sale but will correct it at copy edit stage.

Historical Romance Author said...

A little more accuracy in the typing would have helped my post- sorry- I should have checked it before posting.

Anonymous said...

I would like to see fewer occurrences of historical accuracy being sacrificed to "fit" a story-line. And, while I agree that we all like the "swept-away" fantasies, the pushover, easily-bedded heroine from a good family is just as unbelievable as some of the other premises.

One particular romance I read recently had the heroine leading a life of sexual freedom while still basking in the acceptance and approval of the ton, and treated as a lady. That did not ring true to me and the sexual attitudes she professed were not the attitudes of a young lady from the early 1800's. Rather, I thought I was reading about a 1968 hippie touting free love. Had she been presented as a member of the demi-monde, it would have been more believable.

It is an exercise in improbability to apply the sexual mores of the 1960's to the present day in the everyday lives of Regency-era debutantes. I'm sure that sex happened, but I have a feeling that most of these young women didn't give up their virginity that easily. It was, after all, part of their value as marriagable women according to the standards of those days. A young lady falling into bed with a man prior to any kind of emotional or socially-acceptable commitment just doesn't ring true to me.

Stephen said...

There is a distinction in my mind between accuracy and realism.

As a writer I try to be as accurate as possible - whether about real historical events, social conventions, or how long it would have taken to get from A to B by post chaise.

I do not strive for realism, however. My stories tend to be a little over the top (although I strictly limit myself to one elephant per novel and one secret passage per house) because that's what makes them stories.

When the demands of being historically accurate make a story impossible, then the story, however gripping, however romantic, must be wrong for that period.

Incidentally this is not only a problem for historical fiction - contemporary novels need to get their geography right. It should be no more acceptable to have an illegitimate son inherit a title than it would be to place the White House in New York City.

Anonymous said...

Someone asked

"Also an American in direct line of descent can inherit- for instance if the heir married an American and had children who were Americans - his son could still inherit."

Well, someone who was not a British subject (as they were styled before 1948) could inherit a title, but could not take his seat in Parliament. Thus, several Italian earls of Newburgh (a Scottish title) could not take their seat, until one Italian earl naturalized and then became known as Earl of Newburgh. [He was already an Italian prince, as in noble prince]. So an American inheriting an earldom would need to naturalize then (and now) to take his seat.

And Americans can inherit titles of nobility, but not accept titles of nobility (if they hold an office of profit or serve in the Administration, armed forces etc). There is actually much debate on this point (based on an article in the US constitution).

Of course, inheriting a title and using it were two different things. So was being the apparent heir, and proving that you were the heir. Difficult if you were descended from the fourth son of the 2nd Earl, and the earl who had just died was the 11th or 17th Earl. There were plenty of problems in the Shrewsbury succession 1856-1859 with the money left by will by the 17th Earl to a Howard cousin, but a distant cousin coming forward to prove his claim to the earldom and the titles. The 17th Earl had assumed that all heirs were extinct in making his will and worded it accordingly, I believe. [The current earl is descended from this cousin, who was himself an earl]. Ditto with the Huntingdon earldom, with the 10th Earl being succeeded de jure by a distant cousin who failed to establish his claim. The current earl, descended from a cousin of the previous earl, has done so, I believe, having succeeded well before 1999.

Some peers never bothered to make out their claim and thus to take their seat in the House of Lords. Women had no option back then, of course. But the cost was one thing, finding all the documents (if you were a distant cadet) was another. And some peers were not interested in House attendance at all. All of this holds today as well (although the automatic seat in the House is gone).

Too much information?!