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.