Monday, July 03, 2006

History and “Wallpaper” History

In the past few months there has been a significant amount of discussion within the romance reading and writing community about historical romances, and much of the heat in these discussions was generated by the use of the term ‘wallpaper historicals’ .

As a reader, my preference is for historicals which appear to me to be relatively accurate in their depiction of the past. I say ‘relatively accurate’ because I don’t think it is possible for any work to be entirely accurate. There is so much we don’t know about the past, and reproducing the language and speech patterns of historical characters might well render a book extremely difficult for the modern reader to understand. Despite my personal preferences, however, I think it is important to acknowledge that the level of historical accuracy in a romance cannot be used as an indicator of either literary merit or entertainment value.

Determining which historical romances are ‘wallpaper’ and which are more accurate may require a considerable degree of historical knowledge on the part of the reader. Once a relatively accurate historical romance has been identified, however, its use of history sets the characters and the issues raised by the romance in a historical context. This enables the reader to take the long view on questions such as the role of women in society etc, and thus see how much, or how little, has changed in the intervening years since the era in which the book is set. Nonetheless, each historical romance is a product of its own time: while attempting to remain true to the period depicted, it is likely to deal with issues such as sexuality and male/female relationships from a perspective which is shaped by 21st century attitudes. Issues may then be perceived to be universal in nature, but expressed differently at different times and in different cultures. This sort of historical romance also offers a historical commentary on the period in which it is set. In that respect it is the literary equivalent of the more accurate historical reenactment societies, which seek to explore what life was really like in the past. Finally, the more accurate type of historical romance invites the reader to read it both in the context of the literature in the period in which it is set, and in the context of contemporary works, since it engages with both the past and the present.

The historical romance whose author has striven for accuracy and succeeded in bringing history to life is, then, potentially an extremely challenging text. This does not mean, however, that one should therefore dismiss all ‘wallpaper’ historicals as ‘bad’ literature and mere entertainment. We need to fully recognise the possibility that a work may be full of historical inaccuracies and still be a great literary work. The following defence of Shakespeare’s work could be equally appropriate if used to describe ‘wallpaper’ historical romances since it argues that the author
should not be criticised too heavily for misrepresenting historical events. His plays were works of fiction and entertainment, intended for performance in a specific arena and written according to a rigid style and structure.
Shakespeare is a good example of a writer whose depiction of history is far from reliable. One website, created by some ‘third and fourth year English majors at the University of Michigan’ is designed to show how:
Shakespeare, like many playwrights of his time, changed history to fit his artistic purposes. This website highlights those changes and their significance in the major English History Plays.
While it’s possible that some of Shakespeare’s inaccuracies are due to a lack of knowledge, some must be deliberate, and this leads scholars to ask why he would have wished to change the facts. What ‘artistic purposes’ did it serve? Here’s an example:
Like most of the history plays, many years are compressed into a short sequence of events. The rebellions that are portrayed in this play [Henry IV ] actually had years between them and were not as much of a threat to the throne as portrayed. But [...] making the atmosphere seem more tumultuous adds suspense to the major pressing question of whether or not Hal is prepared to become a strong monarch.
Wallpaper historicals may use a particular setting because it gives credibility to particular types of plot (e.g. the arranged marriage, or one which turns on the importance of virginity and family honour, and it may give the hero particular opportunities for showing his strength, chivalrous nature etc.).

Sometimes Shakespeare’s motives in making changes appear to have been as much political as artistic. He must have wished to avoid displeasing Elizabeth I and several of the English history plays deal with the period leading up to the accession of the Tudor dynasty, of which Elizabeth was a member. Wallpaper historicals enable an author to avoid engaging with potentially inflammatory topics in contemporary society. For example, a Regency hero may be depicted as a Whig without incurring the wrath of contemporary Conservative voters, since the policies of the Tory party now bear little resemblance to those of the 1800s. Writing a wallpaper historical can also enable an author to avoid engaging with the less pleasant realities of history, such as slavery and racism, thus ensuring that the society and characters depicted remain appealing to a contemporary reader. Wallpaper history can also be used to promote particular ideas about national identity. A wallpaper historical set in Scotland will probably reveal far more about the author’s ideas about Scottishness, than it will about Scotland’s history. Similarly, wallpaper historical romances featuring a hero who is a sheik or a native American will express ideas about ‘the other’, the exotic.

While a few authors of ‘wallpaper’ historical romances may just lack the ability to do historical research, it seems likely that the majority deliberately use just enough historical details to create a particular atmosphere and setting. According to Northrop Frye
The romance is the nearest of all literary forms to the wish-fulfillment dream, and for that reason it has socially a curiously paradoxical role. In every age the ruling social or intellectual class tends to project its ideals in some form of romance, where the virtuous heroes and beautiful heroines represent the ideals and the villains the threats to their ascendancy. […] Yet there is a genuinely ‘proletarian’ element in romance too which is never satisfied with its various incarnations and in fact the incarnations themselves indicate that no matter how great a change in society, romance will turn up again, as hungry as ever, looking for new hopes and desires to feed on. The perennially child-like quality of romance is marked by its extraordinarily persistent nostalgia, its search for some kind of imaginative golden age in time or space. (186)
It may be, then, that the historical inaccuracies of the ‘wallpaper’ historical romance are an indication of the particular ‘golden age’ or fantasy that the author and/or her readers prefers. A wallpaper Regency may suggest that both readers and authors have fantasies where they (and/or the hero) are rich, cultured and aristocratic. The wallpaper Western presents a fantasy of finding one’s ideal life partner in a very American setting where a man knows how to do ‘what a man has to do’. The wallpaper Scottish-set romance is often completely timeless, and while it may suggest that the author and/or her readers have, or would like to have, Scottish ancestry, it may simply be that they appreciate thinking about tall, rugged, warriors in kilts. Such fantasies are no less indicative of a lack of literary merit than is the use of a pastoral setting in Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe, nor do they prevent the author from exploring important themes such as personal autonomy, the nature of love etc. They may also reveal aspects of the type of life they would ideally like to lead and the qualities which the author and her readers feel are important in men and women. The historical setting is being used, then, as a convenient vehicle to convey ideals.

18 comments:

  1. Perhaps we should refer to 'wallpaper historicals' as 'cosy historicals'. The name's used for crime novels that are far-fetched, so why not romances?

    ReplyDelete
  2. It would be good to have a term to distinguish them, wouldn't it. And 'cosy' is a term people might be familiar with, but on the other hand, if used about romances it might be misinterpreted as being a reference to a lack of sex-scenes, rather than a lack of historical accuracy. Maybe 'light' historicals? But then that might be misinterpreted too, as being not about 'dark' subjects, and again that's not right. I actually think 'wallpaper' is quite a descriptive term, but it does have negative connotations, because it's been used so often to belittle this type of historical romance. Maybe 'backdrop' would be more accurate, because of its associations with the stage and scene-setting?

    ReplyDelete
  3. The perennially child-like quality of romance is marked by its extraordinarily persistent nostalgia, its search for some kind of imaginative golden age in time or space.

    Wooha! If that's what he says about romance, I wonder what he has to say about fantasy! While I would agree that romance shares certain structural similarities with the fairy tale (e.g., at the beginning the order is disrupted; at the end it is restored = happy ending), I don't think many romances portray a wholly ideal world. If I take Teresa Medeiros' The Bride & the Beast, which has a very strong fairy-tale character, the world and people Medeiros depicts are far from ideal. They are often downright mean.

    I would also argue that most romances feature heroes that don't fit the real-life ideals of either readers or writers. As Doreen Owens Malek so nicely puts it in Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women, "My husband, ever the logical lawyer, is fond of saying that if he once behaved the way the heroes do in my books I'd serve him with separation papers the same day." This contrast between fiction and reality becomes most obvious, imo, in category romances, especially in the M&B Modern Romance line (if I'm not mistaken, the titles from the M&B Modern Romance and Tender Romance lines are published as Harlequin Presents in the USA): personally, I love those Southern European heroes, who are generally in a beastly mood throughout the novel, sulk, snarl and stalk the poor heroines. And most heroines let them. I most certainly wouldn't!

    And one of the charming things about historical romances is that the heroes can behave even more outrageously. :)

    ReplyDelete
  4. If I take Teresa Medeiros' The Bride & the Beast, which has a very strong fairy-tale character, the world and people Medeiros depicts are far from ideal. They are often downright mean.

    The step-sisters in Cinderella are 'mean' too, though, aren't they? Fairy tales have plenty of unpleasant events in them, and it seems to me they often depict a rather unpredictable world, where wicked fairies and big bad wolves turn up, just when they're least expected. Depending on the version, there isn't always a neat and tidy conclusion. In the Grimms' version of Cinderella, the ugly sisters cut their feet to fit them into the shoe, and they don't get magically healed, do they?

    I love those Southern European heroes, who are generally in a beastly mood throughout the novel, sulk, snarl and stalk the poor heroines. And most heroines let them. I most certainly wouldn't!
    I think the term 'beastly' is precisely right. They're like the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. When the 'beast' is better-natured but just looks ugly then he's more like the frog prince, I think.

    Maybe we need a blog entry (or several) about fairy tales and romance?

    ReplyDelete
  5. The step-sisters in Cinderella are 'mean' too, though, aren't they?

    Ah, but they're not mean like real people are mean. They're one-dimensional characters in that they're only ever evil, nothing else. Medeiros' secondary characters are not evil as such, but weak humans, e.g. they decide to sacrifice the heroine to the "dragon" and then not only mentally transform their own violence into a self-sacrifice on the heroine's part, but also make it sound like jolly good luck for the heroine. Because, let's face it, she would have never got a husband anyway, the poor thing.

    In the Grimms' version of Cinderella, the ugly sisters cut their feet to fit them into the shoe, and they don't get magically healed, do they?

    But who would readily hack off parts of their own feet? *g* And which shoe would only fit one person? *ggg*

    ReplyDelete
  6. they're not mean like real people are mean. They're one-dimensional characters in that they're only ever evil, nothing else
    Well, yes, because fairy-tales are short, which doesn't leave a lot of room for subtle characterisation, but even so, I had a quick look at the Grimms' version and it has both sisters being beautiful (which is not the same as the Disney version) and the younger of the two 'had a little sympathy in her heart'.http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0510a.html#grimm

    But who would readily hack off parts of their own feet? *g* Well, there's always plastic surgery, which is not completely dissimilar.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Maybe we need a blog entry (or several) about fairy tales and romance?

    Oh yes! Could I do it? I'd love to, since I've also done some research in the field of fairy tales. :)

    Well, yes, because fairy-tales are short, which doesn't leave a lot of room for subtle characterisation

    It's more than that. Fairy tale characters are always flat and don't have any depths. This includes that they don't age, they don't learn and they usually don't feel pain. Thus, in "The Seven Ravens" the little girl simply cuts off her little finger in order to use it as a key to the glass mountain. But cutting off her finger is not painful, nor does it affect her in any way afterwards! Another element that adds to the flatness of the characters is that they remain nameless. We might get to know their nicknames, e.g., Little Red Riding Hood, or they might have names like Hans/John, which is the equivalent of Everyman.

    The difference between fairy tales and fictional reality becomes most obvious in fantasy, which relies on a much greater extent on fairytale motifs than romance. To use the example of "Cinderella": in Pratchett's "Witches Abroad" the bad witch tries to re-enact the Cinderella-plot (with a portion of "The Frog King" thrown in for good measure -- eww!), yet when it comes to the glass-slipper test the story is unravelled:

    Nanny grabbed the slipper out of the Prince's hands and, before anyone else could move, slid it on to her foot.

    Then she waggled the foot in the air.

    It was a perfect fit.

    "There!" she said. "See? You could have wasted the whole day."

    "Especially because there must be hundreds of five-and-a-half . . . narrow fit wearers in a city this size," Granny went on. "Unless, of course, you happened to sort of go to the right house right at the start. If you had, you know, a lucky guess?"

    "But that'd be
    cheatin'," said Nanny. (245)

    ReplyDelete
  8. Getting back to the "wallpaper history" theme, I think there ought to be a distinction made between a book that's set in a past period that's not described in minute detail and one that's set in a past period described using inaccurate details.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I think there ought to be a distinction made between a book that's set in a past period that's not described in minute detail and one that's set in a past period described using inaccurate details.

    This is where one hits the complicated issue of actually deciding which novels are historically accurate and which aren't.

    I don't think a book has to be filled with minute details in order to establish historical accuracy. A book could achieve historical accuracy without that if the author has a good grasp of the background history and uses that to inform her characterisation and setting. In a historically accurate romance the characters will think and behave in ways which are appropriate for the period, and that's more important than giving a detailed and historically accurate description of every item in their bedrooms (for example).

    On the other hand, when history is just being used as a backdrop, the specific details of clothing or décor could be perfectly accurate, but they might just be being used as props/stage settings, while the characters behaved in ways which seemed completely inappropriate for the period. Even if characters decide to break with convention, they should show some awareness of what the conventions are, and what the real consequences are of breaking them.

    And there's always room for even the author who's most devoted to doing her research to make the odd historical mistake.

    So yes, there can be authors who aspire to write a historically accurate romance and succeed, some who partially succeed, and some who fail, as well as those who write 'wallpaper' but make sure that specific objects etc which are described are accurate.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Maybe 'backdrop' would be more accurate, because of its associations with the stage and scene-setting?

    A term that I have seen used for such romances is "costume drama", which has all the right resonances for me. However much research has been done into the "period detail" (and it frequently focuses on the finer points of fashion), the end result fails to capture the spirit of the age that is supposingly being portrayed.

    Where such books disappoint me is that they tend not to say anything new about the period in which they are set, and on top of this it turns out that the period setting is there to hide the fact that they say nothing new about relationships in the modern world either.

    ReplyDelete
  11. And there's always room for even the author who's most devoted to doing her research to make the odd historical mistake.

    Underwear is a nice example for this. *g* It's devilishly difficult to find good info on underwear. Thank heavens for Beau Monde workshops and Tonda Fuller! (who writes as Kalen Hughes and has some great info on underwear on her website).

    ReplyDelete
  12. I should perhaps add, though, that underwear mistakes make a really nice topic to talk about at readings. You can then proceed to tell your enrapt audience all about the proper hows and whys of stays and corsets and watch their eyes turn as round as saucers. *g* By now I can fully understand why professors of folklore so love to tell their students about Roman fish soup and what worms were used for in folk medicine. *ggg*

    ReplyDelete
  13. ...and on top of this it turns out that the period setting is there to hide the fact that they say nothing new about relationships in the modern world either

    I agree wholeheartedly.

    Maybe I'm preaching to the choir here, but I've always been of the mindset that when we write, we do so in order to say something, to make a point, sometimes even to -- gasp! -- send a message.

    And if the story itself, which of course includes the physical as well as chronological setting, doesn't speak to the reader in and about her contemporary setting, then it fails, regardless of accuracy. (The same, I suppose, can be said of contemporary-setting novels that get details wrong, too. Like the manuscript I once read in which the hero and heroine drove from San Francisco to Los Angeles for lunch and were back in SF for a 2 p.m. business meeting!)

    But by the same token, I think we have to allow for at least some imposition of 20th/21st century mores when writing/reading historical romances, even if only in the reader's expectations of the companionate marriage and HEA which in themselves may be historically inaccurate!

    And we also have to understand that for the average reader reading for entertainment -- not the scholarly reader reading for analysis -- some of or even many of the nitpicky details are going to be missed or ignored, and in some cases true historical accuracy may make the book unreadable or even unwritable.

    I'm not defending historical inaccuracy by any means. And I believe those writers who can work within the limitations imposed by historical accuracy are to be commended. I also believe those who routinely choose to abstain (for lack of a better word) from accuracy as though it were unimportant, irrelevant, immaterial, or even deleterious to the creative process are not to be commended at all.

    If the judgment of accurate or inaccurate rests solely on the actions, dialogue, and attitudes of the characters, I think there's going to be a lot of room for subjective evaluation. There will always be people who say, "Yes, but it felt right to me." And some -- I almost wrote "many" but changed my mind -- of the most popular and perhaps most influential romance novels may engage the reader in spite of or even because of historical inaccuracy.

    ReplyDelete
  14. In a historically accurate romance the characters will think and behave in ways which are appropriate for the period

    But who decides what kind of thoughts and behaviour are appropriate for the period?

    Consider the following:

    A girl runs off with a man, without any thought it might ruin her reputation, lives with him in London, ignores her aunt when her aunt tries to tell her what she's done, marries the man - eventually - because friends effectively buy him for her, goes home, and is received with open arms by her doting mother. If someone wrote that in a Regency today, it would be called ridiculous - a wallpaper romance! No girl would run off and live with a man in Regency England, and if she did, she would be utterly ruined! She would never be received anywhere! But this is what happens in Pride and Prejudice.

    A man and woman share a carriage ride, without any chaperon. She's not compromised, no one suggests they should get married - wallpaper romance again, except that this happens in Emma.

    A governess marries a man of means, a friend of her former pupil's family, and assumes a roughly equal footing to her former pupil - Emma again.

    A young man deliberately makes love to one young woman, whilst secretly engaged to another, and is forgiven. (Emma)

    A twenty-nine-year-old woman is not unduly worried about her matrimonial prospects, although she feels she would like to have an eligible offer in the next few years - this happens in Persuasion.

    In fact, Jane Austen's books are full of people who act 'wrongly' for the period, which is why I think it's very difficult to decide what is and isn't historically accurate.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I'm not so sure - Lydia (and her mother) are described as heedless, stupid women. They're not the heroine, and their behaviour is generally met with disgust and disapproval by others. I don't think either Lydia or Mrs Bennett would be received in the best society.

    Frank Churchill may be forgiven, but people are shocked, and he's not portrayed as being admirable. Also, although he was flirting with Emma, he wasn't engaged to her, so it's not as though he jilts anyone.

    If the 29-year-old woman you're describing from Persuasion is Elizabeth, then she's another character who's portrayed negatively. She's proud and conceited. And Austen says that:

    It sometimes happens, that a woman is handsomer at twenty-nine than she was ten years before; and, generally speaking, if there has been neither ill health nor anxiety, it is a time of life at which scarcely any charm is lost. It was so with Elizabeth, still the same handsome Miss Elliot that she had begun to be thirteen years ago; and Sir Walter might be excused, therefore, in forgetting her age, or, at least, be deemed only half a fool, for thinking himself and Elizabeth as blooming as ever

    This description of Elizabeth, and of Sir Walter being perhaps 'only half a fool' are hardly a recommendation for considering that their attitudes are ones that would have been admired or approved or thought sensible.

    These examples are behaviours which are not approved of. It's not that such things aren't historically accurate, but that if they occur they don't happen to the hero/heroine. So if a modern author wants to make them happen to a hero or heroine, they're going to have to get round the fact that someone who behaves like this/thinks like this would have been perceived in a negative light in that society, or at least, they would have been by people like Austen.

    The governess example isn't one that I would have picked out as an inaccuracy anyway. Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey are both governesses too. Given the example of Letty Lade, all sorts of marriages were possible, but I think the social status of the two people involved would have affected how they'd have been received in society. Miss Taylor was a lady, so it doesn't surprise me that she was received and respected in society.

    I don't recall the example you mention about a carriage ride, but was it a closed or open carriage? And was the person who accompanied the lady a relative?

    ReplyDelete
  16. Sandra Schwab03 July, 2006 21:28

    And in one respect, the majority of romance novels will never be true to historical reality: namely, when it comes to sexuality.
    In the introduction to "The Game of Hearts", Lesley Blanch writes of Regency men: "They had little time, or inclination, to spare for women of breeding. They married them, begat their heirs and occasionally escorted them to a Court Ball . . . Regency men considered it amusing to cuckold a friend or aquaintance" (17) -- certainly not something one of the heroes of romance would do. In addition, rakish heroes don't die of syphilis -- as so many others living at that time did (I remember an interesting conversation with my piano teacher about how Robert Schumann died. I thought he simply turned mad ...)

    ReplyDelete
  17. I'm not convinced about Lydia and her mother not being received in the best society, as they were received at Pemberley, and Darcy is the grandson of an earl. Any better society would have been closed to them anyway because they were not of a high enough social class to merit it, irrespective of marital peculiarities ;-).

    Frank Churchill might not have been engaged to Emma, but he was engaged to Jane Fairfax. I'm not convinced that Austen disapproves of his behaviour - she rewards him with Jane Fairfax.

    Then there's the fact that modern Regencies are not usually set amongst people like Austen, they're usually set amongst the ton. Lady Caroline Lamb's book, written in the same period, is completely different in outlook to Austen, and it could be argued that her mindset is more suitable for a modern Regency.

    I think the point I was trying to make - obviously badly! - was that then, as now, people were individuals, and there was no 'Regency mindset' as such. Modern writers tapping into Caroline Lamb's mindset are just as authentic as those tapping into Austen's mindset, or Hannah More's mindset, I think.


    (Btw, the (closed) carriage incident in Emma involves Mr Elton, who is not a relative. He makes love to Emma ( Regency making love!) but she never feels compelled to marry him.)

    ReplyDelete
  18. Re Frank Churchill, I think he's more than a little like Willoughby (handsome, charming, selfish, capable of passion but not considerate of the feelings of the lady he loves). Willoughby is 'rewarded' in the sense that he gets a rich wife and lots of material possessions, and his only punishment is that he can't have Marianne. I'm certain that Austen disapproved of him, though, given the extent of his bad behaviour, so I don't think one can extrapolate from Frank Churchill not being punished that it's an indication that Austen approved of either him or his behaviour.

    I suppose we may have to agree to differ on this one.

    I do agree wholeheartedly that there wasn't one, monolithic 'Regency mindset'. I've only read a tiny bit of Amanda Vickery's The Gentleman's Daughter, but from what I've read so far, she does make a distinction between the attitudes held by the aristocracy and those of the 'genteel', with the aristocracy having a much more accepting attitude towards adultery, for example. Caroline Lamb seemed to manage to shock even the aristocrats, however, but perhaps that was due to her lack of discretion rather than her actions per se.

    I'm sure there were also variations among those classes, because people have different personalities, experiences and beliefs (e.g. high/low Church, Tory, Whig).

    So I agree that

    Modern writers tapping into Caroline Lamb's mindset are just as authentic as those tapping into Austen's mindset, or Hannah More's mindset, I think.

    but they do have to give some indication, I think, that that's what they're doing. As I said, Caroline Lamb wasn't the norm, even among aristocrats, and she was punished for her behaviour, so if an author wants to have her heroine imitate Caroline, that heroine's going to have to at least be aware that there may be some extremely serious negative consequences.

    ReplyDelete