Sunday, November 25, 2007


There's been a lot of debate at AAR recently about historical accuracy in romances and one poster, MarianneM, noted that:
there have always been rebels, like Lady Hester Stanhope, who are willing to go outside the rules of society, and pay the social price, to defy the rules and triumph. But first the writer needs to know the 'rules and regs' of the society in which his hero or heroine developed in order to show what a triumph his protagonist has achieved in going against those rules.
Madeline Hunter said something similar in a recent interview:
not all women toed the line the way we often think. Some of them did have "modern sensibilities" and chafed at the restrictions. Some of them "worked the system" to have more freedom. Some of them removed themselves from polite society and thrived in other circles, those of the arts for example, where other ideas about women were more welcome. There have always been nonconformists.

Using a character who does not conform requires anchoring her unconventional ideas in the context of the time period. If a writer doesn't then it appears anachronistic and contrived.

I think that the character has to acknowledge the mores and strictures and respect the power that they have in her world. I think that she has to experience the penalties of violating the social rules. The other characters can't act like it is no big deal either. I believe it helps if she does not live in a contrary way for frivolous reasons, or take stupid risks and do silly things just because she is in a pique of rebellion.
Elizabeth Kerri Mahon has a whole blogful of historical scandalous women. Here's one example, which ends with a real 19th-century sheik romance. Jane Digby (her portrait is on the left) had already lived an exciting, scandalous life when,
middle-aged but still stunningly beautiful, and vowing to renounce men, she headed for Syria, to see Palmyra the legendary kingdom of Zenobia, where she met and married the love of her life, a Bedouin nobleman, Sheikh Medjuel el Mezrab who was twenty years her junior. Medjuel offered to divorce his wife for Jane, within minutes of meeting her. Despite the advice of the British Counsel and her family, she threw caution to the wind, finally finding the one man, she could bond body and soul with.

On the topic of history, when I was reading Adrianne Byrd's When Valentines Collide recently I was suddenly reminded of Eloisa James's Your Wicked Ways. Both books
  • tell the story of a hero and heroine who share a profession. In James's novel they are both musicians, while in Byrd's the couple are "love gurus" who run popular shows giving relationship advice.
  • each believes that the other is dismissive of his/her talents.
  • both couples are famous. In James's novel this is because they are members of the aristocracy, and so form part of the social elite, whereas in Byrd's novel they are part of the modern equivalent of the "ton"; media celebrities.
  • the hero and heroine are already married to each other.
  • the marriage is in serious trouble and the couple need to rediscover the sexual attraction they used to feel for one another.
  • in both cases, childbearing, or the lack of it, is an important issue.
  • in both novels, the characters have to try to avoid scandal.
It's with regard to that last point that the difference in "the 'rules and regs' of the society" in which the novels are set is most noticeable. In part that's also due to the difference in their professions: Byrd's couple would lose professional credibility if their marital difficulties were revealed to the public, whereas in James's novel it's the heroine whose reputation would be damaged should some of the details of their relationship become widely known. Nonetheless, the fact that the books are so very similar in many ways both in terms of plot and style (in addition to the points outlined above, both novels contain humorous episodes and interesting secondary couples) really highlighted for me the importance of the setting. Although some problems related to love, marriage and celebrity seem to have changed very little in the past few hundred years, the historical period in which the stories are set does and should make a difference to how those problems manifest themselves and what the characters think and do about them.

The illustrations show the changing nature of celebrity gossip. The first is a photo of modern Australian gossip magazines, taken from this article. The second is a James Gillray print from 1808 depicting caricatures displayed for sale in a shop window.
In October the Smart Bitches posted about a letter published in The Lancet in which Dr Brendan D. Kelly reported, in a tongue-in-cheek manner on his research into medical romance novels. His sample size was small (20) but he was nonetheless able to detect some common features and draw some conclusions:
These novels draw attention to the romantic possibilities of primary care settings and the apparent inevitability of uncontrolled passions in the context of emergency medicine, especially as practised on aeroplanes. These novels suggest that there is an urgent need to include instruction in the arts of romance in training programmes for doctors and nurses who intend working in these settings.
The BBC also reported on Kelly's research and he told them that medical romances can give "a good insight into how people think medicine should be." The novels certainly do present an ideal, yet the Harlequin guidelines for the medical romances seem to go a little further and suggest that the novels
capture the pace, warmth, tensions, dilemmas, traumas and triumphs of modern medical professionals — strong, dedicated, determined and caring men and women. Heroes and heroines are equally matched and equally respected professionals. They would also move a mountain to save a life or find the right treatment — heroes and heroines you would like on your side in a medical emergency.
One can't quarrel with that last sentence. Whatever their romantic trials and tribulations, the heroes and heroines of medical romances never let their patients suffer as a result.

A follow-up to the initial interest in Dr Kelly's research was recently reported at the I Heart Presents blog: "Bestselling Medical author Caroline Anderson was interviewed [...] on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour as part of a feature on romance, medical drama and fiction." The audio clip is still available at the BBC website.


  1. Absolutely, Laura, on context, context, context. Indeed characters in a historical novel can do anything that was physically and technologically possible, but then the effects on society and their lives have to be shown or it's just another fantasy costume game. They can be fine, but they're a different genre.

    One factor for me as a reader and writer is how they end up. It's very important to me that at the end of a romance novel the characters have achieved a pleasant home in a warm and enjoyable society. Could be my nature. Could be that I am an immigrant and know how dislocating even small and gentle changes can be.

    Some readers love the idea of the H&H heading off into adventures together, or don't care if all their neighbours disapprove of them. Not me.

    This does limit the amount of social aberration I want to see in a book, and I don't need it to enjoy one. In fact, I tend to groan when the Regency heroine has an odd profession, or is presented as heroic for not wearing a corset, or running around London in breeches, or preferring the company of the "manly men" down by the river.

    I have no problem with others enjoying those stories, but I truly would like to understand why. I prefer the books where the characters work with courage and strength from within their time and place to achieve harmony and a productive future.


  2. context, context, context

    Yes, it strikes me that my post isn't as miscellaneous as I initially thought. In the Woman's Hour clip Caroline Anderson explains a bit about her worldbuilding/setting and says that she keeps going back to the same hospital because that way "I don't have to recreate an entire hospital from scratch each time."

    I imagine it's not so very different for authors of historicals, because moving into a different time-period must mean doing a lot of extra research. And also like the historical romance authors, Caroline's aware of the gaps in her medical knowledge:

    Jenni: "Caroline, how much medical knowledge have you got after all these years of writing these books?"

    Caroline: "I've got a lot more now than I had when I started but probably not enough so what I try and do is create the backdrop, because it isn't actually about the medicine. It's more about the people who are working within the medical framework, so I try not to do anything wrong. If that means I don't do it at all, so be it, but I put in what I know and what I don't know, I don't make up, because we aren't writing fairytales."

    It seems to me that Caroline Anderson's also determined not to write about "fantasy costume games", albeit in her case the costumes would be medical rather than historical ones. She's got that same desire to be true to the knowledge she does have and create (inasmuch as it's possible) an accurate setting. But, as I'm sure I've seen discussed at Word Wenches and elsewhere, there's also a need not to overwhelm the reader with accurate details which might distract attention from the central love story.

    This does limit the amount of social aberration I want to see in a book, and I don't need it to enjoy one. In fact, I tend to groan when the Regency heroine has an odd profession, or is presented as heroic for not wearing a corset, or running around London in breeches

    In some ways, I would think it would be much trickier to write a romance like this and make it feel historically accurate, because the author would have to provide good reasons why the heroine was behaving that way and then create an ending which took the consequences of that sort of behaviour into account. Some of those consequences might well not be compatible with total social acceptance, so as you say, the hero and heroine might well have to head off into the unknown in order to be able to live happily together and that could put the HEA into jeopardy for many readers.

    A lot of the time, though, I suspect that these aspects of the heroine's character aren't explored in a historically accurate way, but are just there to make the modern reader feel a greater level of identification with the heroine. Personally, I don't think it would make me identify with the heroine; it would just make me question the historical accuracy of the novel. But I'd also agree with you, again, in that I think a "fantasy costume game [...] can be fine", but it's really a different sub-genre. Not so much a "historical romance" but a sort of fantasy-history romance.

  3. The question of historical accuracy is a hot topic on romance blogs at the moment, and what is really interesting to me is the ways in which individual readers react to factual inaccuracies and anachronisms. Personally, I tend to be relatively forgiving of factual errors (which really bother other readers) but I do find anachronistic dialogue and behaviour extremely off-putting.

    (I started writing a much lengthier comment on this post about sexual behaviour but it was getting unwieldy and off-topic so I think I'll do a post on that instead).

  4. I started writing a much lengthier comment on this post about sexual behaviour but it was getting unwieldy and off-topic so I think I'll do a post on that instead

    It was interesting. I don't have a clue what "type of sex people would have been having in the early 19th century" but I do suspect that some things might have been different because of the lack of privacy you mention, because of the type of contraceptives available, lack of knowledge about certain activities, absence of drugs like Viagra, etc. I'm not saying that you wouldn't have been able to find some people doing some of the things that are done today, but not everyone is highly imaginative and/or would have had access to the 19th-century equivalent of a sex shop. So it does seem reasonable to suppose that some people then might not have thought of some of the things which they would know about had they been born later and become a reader of Cosmo, or watcher of Sex and the City etc.

    And I do think it's reasonable to assume that attitudes towards female virginity and erroneous beliefs about the negative effects of masturbation must have had an effect on some people's behaviour, as would the fact that homosexual activities were illegal.

    Marie Stopes's Married Love, published in 1918,

    is of great interest and importance as a historical document describing the state of sexual knowledge in the early 1900's. Stopes provided much-needed information about sexuality and human sexual response for a generation who knew little or nothing. Stopes was one of the earliest writers to emphasize that women experienced sexual desire, that the response patterns of men and women naturally differed, and that sexual intercourse should be a source of mutual pleasure and fulfilment for both.

    There's an online (1923) edition here. And really, it seems from reading that that some people did know very, very little about things which those of us who read romance would take for granted. For example:

    So little of the elements of the Art of Love do many men know that the case of Mrs. G. is not exceptional. Her husband was accustomed to pet her and to have relations with her frequently, but yet he never took any trouble to rouse her sex-feelings. She had married as a very innocent girl, but often vaguely felt a sense of something lacking in her husband's love. Her husband had never kissed her except on the lips or cheeks, but once at the crest of the wave of her sex-tide (all unconscious that it was so) she felt a yearning to feel his head, his lips, pressed against her bosom. The sensitive interrelation between a woman's breasts and the rest of her sex-life is a well-established fact, and there is a world of poetic beauty in the longing of a loving woman for the unconceived child, which melts in mists of tenderness toward her lover, the soft touch of whose lips can thus rouse her mingled joy. Because she shyly asked him, Mrs. G.'s husband impressed one short kiss on her bosom, and never repeated it. He was so ignorant that he did not know that the kissing and the tender fondling with his lips of a woman's breasts is one of the first and surest ways to make her ready for complete and satisfactory union. [...]

    I know a case in which the husband, chivalrous and loving, had to wait years before his bride recovered from the shock of the discovery of the meaning of marriage and was able to allow him a natural relation. There are known not a few cases in which the horror of the first night of marriage with a man less considerate, has driven the bride to suicide or insanity.

    That girls can reach a marriageable age without some knowledge of the realities of sex would seem incredible: but it is a fact. One highly educated lady whom I know intimately told me that when she was about eighteen she suffered many months of agonizing apprehension that she was about to have a baby, because a man had snatched a kiss from her lips at a dance.

    Stopes also points out that if, like some of the rakes in romances, a man's previous experience has been with prostitutes, he may well not have any experience of trying to please his partner:

    Many men who enter marriage sincerely and tenderly, may yet have some previous experience of bought "love." It is then not unlikely that they may fall into the error of explaining their wife's experiences in terms of the reactions of the prostitute. They argue that, because the prostitute showed physical excitement and pleasure in the sexual act, if the bride or wife does not do so, then she is "cold" or "undersexed." They may not realize that often all the bodily movements of the prostitute are studied and simulated because her client enjoys his orgasm best when he imagines that the woman in his arms has one simultaneously.

    Obviously Stopes was writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, not the beginning of the nineteenth, but it does suggest that repressive attitudes towards sexuality and lack of knowledge did have an effect on a considerable number of people.

  5. I agree that fantasy-history romance is a different subgenre from historical romance, though the differences between them are often a matter of degree. It's an unusual split because readers often can't be sure which subgenre a book falls in.

    Distinguishing between subgenres is partly a subjective judgment of a book's balance of history versus fantasy (some think inventing a street name is ahistorical, while others don't feel that debatably anachronistic champagne flutes damage the historicity). But readers aren't history buffs in every setting, so we don't have all the objective facts either. I appreciate it when authors use historical notes so I can see where they feel their books fall.

  6. I take your point Laura, and I certainly don't think that in general people would have been experimenting with a vast variety of sexual positions etc. However:

    (1) I'm no historian and I can't talk with any authority about this but, as you point out Stopes was writing in the early 20th century and certainly the Victorian era had an enormous influence on sexual mores with some even hiding 'obscene' table legs under tablecloths etc. Without knowing more about it, I'm not certain that women of earlier periods would necessarily have been quite as ignorant as the women Stopes talked about. There are certainly lots of bawdy references in Shakespeare, so 16th century theatre audiences were presumably a bit freer in their attitudes than the Victorians.

    (2) Contrary to what Larkin said, sex was not invented in 1964. Our ancestors were born with all the same bits and pieces that we have and it seems to me rather idiotic to assume that our (alright less well-informed) forbears wouldn't have known what to do with them or might not have thought to try using them in different ways.

    I must admit, however, that the sheer number of historical romance heroes who can apparently not only locate the clitoris, but routinely rouse heroines to sexual ecstasy by manipulating said organ, is rather ludicrous.

    Now, a commenter on my own blog has attached a link to some Victorian pornography, so, if you'll excuse me, I will go and find out just how repressed the Victorians were.

  7. There are certainly lots of bawdy references in Shakespeare, so 16th century theatre audiences were presumably a bit freer in their attitudes than the Victorians.

    Oh, certainly. But that people could make and understand bawdy jokes doesn't necessarily mean that they would have all been able to "locate the clitoris [...] and routinely rouse heroines to sexual ecstasy by manipulating said organ." Similarly the use of pornography doesn't necessarily lead to such expertise either, and how useful it would be to a heroine would depend on whether she'd seen it, whether she was shocked by it/the actions the hero attempted as a result of it, and whether the hero would actually act out what was represented in the pictures (I wonder if for some people it might just stay at the level of fantasies or, perhaps, something they might try out with a prostitute but not with a wife).

    That said, you're right that we shouldn't underestimate their abilities and knowledge. Seeing as I've already mentioned one Regency cartoonist, and for comparative purposes with respect to the Victorian pornography, Thomas Rowlandson produced some pornographic Regency cartoons which depict couples in a variety of different positions (some extremely acrobatic), including this one which seems to show a woman masturbating while voyeuristically watching some other people having sex and this one which shows a student very intent on his study of the female organs. On her blog Sandra's got a description of some erotic playing-cards, "printed some time between 1830 and 1850, probably in Frankfurt on the Main."

    The Victorian My Secret Life porn that Kate Rothwell mentioned at your blog certainly seems to have been very expensive. I don't know how much a Rowlandson print would have cost, but I do wonder whether expense and limited access to such material would have meant it had a limited distribution compared to modern porn.

    Going back a lot further in time, I remember reading in Angus McLaren's book on impotence that:

    In Rome who penetrated whom was crucial. Anal rape was feared. There were no discussions of the boy’s pleasure, indeed the assumption was made that the passive male could not be pleasured. Those who brandished accusations of effeminacy tended to liken passive men to slaves and women. Yet the worst thing a man could be accused of – even worse than servicing another man by fallatio – was, as noted in Martial (Epigram 2.28), that of servicing a woman by cunnilingus.
    The ancients’ concerns for potency can only be fully understood when viewed in the context of a culture that lauded male dominance and feared the mythical, sexually voracious female.

    That simultaneously suggests that in this period (a) some people must have been trying out cunnilingus (b) it wasn't socially encouraged and (c) female sexual pleasure wasn't something that was seen as particularly important.

    McLaren, Angus. Impotence: A Cultural History. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007.

  8. I agree that fantasy-history romance is a different subgenre from historical romance, though the differences between them are often a matter of degree. It's an unusual split because readers often can't be sure which subgenre a book falls in.

    You're right, but after that extensive discussion of historic porn, I'm wondering if there's a similar problem with regards to readers not being sure "which subgenre a book falls in" when it comes to distinguishing between some "hot" romances and "erotic romances". The boundaries can get very blurred there too. The difference with the "fantasy-history romance" sub-genre is that I don't think many authors are going around saying that's what they're writing, whereas with erotic and sexy romances, they do (though sometimes the labelling is at the discretion of publishers, or depends on reviewers deciding how "hot" the books are).

    readers aren't history buffs in every setting, so we don't have all the objective facts either

    In terms of how it would be depicted in a novel, because my focus was on literature, not on the day-to-day details of living in 15th-century Castile, I'm not sure that I'd know a lot of the objective facts about that period, even though it's one I studied for several years. I'd be able to notice if the attitudes expressed by the characters didn't match those which are to be found in the chronicles, poetry etc of the period, but I wouldn't know very much about drinking vessels (for example). So I'm always prepared to admit my ignorance.

  9. I'm wondering if there's a similar problem with regards to readers not being sure "which subgenre a book falls in" when it comes to distinguishing between some "hot" romances and "erotic romances". The boundaries can get very blurred there too.

    Absolutely. That's what I meant by the more subjective, degrees-of-difference judgment of where the book falls. Dividing books by genre always runs into that problem--erotica vs erotic romance vs romance with sex is a great example.

    The difference I meant to highlight is that in historical fiction there's specialized knowledge that's often not accessible to the reader, that could be part of what places a book in a particular subgenres. For example, in Jo Beverley's Devilish if you don't know that the Chevalier d'Eon was an historical figure, reading about a transvestite swordsman acting as Ambassador to England might lead you to decide the book is bizarre fantasy-history romance. So the reader can be wrong about the subgenre (as opposed to simply having a different perspective) to a greater degree than in, say, erotic romance--at least, I wouldn't want to tell a reader that her erotica isn't erotic ;)

    Though in light of the Victorian porn discussion, perhaps there's some equally specialized knowledge that identifies erotic romance too!

  10. I suppose there could be "specialized knowledge" that some people have and which make them feel a lot more relaxed about certain kinds of sexual content, so they might not label a book "erotic", whereas another reader, who's reading about that practice for the first time, might be convinced that the novel was "erotic" or even pornographic. Certainly mainstream romance novels do seem to have gradually got more explicit in their sexual content. Katherine Woodiwiss's novels, for example, were labelled "erotic historicals", but I very much doubt they'd be considered "erotic" when compared to the modern "erotic romances."

    I remember Jo writing about the Chevalier D'Eon on the Word Wenches blog and he's a fascinating character I'd not heard of before.

  11. If you read about the lives of such eccentric English adventuresses as the above-mentioned Lady Hester Stanhope (referenced in Mary Stewart's The Gabriel Hounds) and Gertrude Bell (see Desert Queen by Janet Wallach)--who by the way is probably personally responsible for the Iraq war, IMHO--you will see that they were not very happy. Bell was disappointed in love several times, and I think Lady Hester was barking mad.

    As for the sexual mores of the Regency era, read some of the speculations on exactly what caused Lady Byron to leave her husband.

    And the pornographic playing cards were called a "dowager's deck"; the heroine uses them to cheat a proper gentleman in Edith Layton's The Game of Love.

    As for anachronisms and errors, what bugs me the most is getting titles of address wrong, as if one referred to Sir Winston Churchill as "Sir Churchill." Titles seem so basic, and so easy to look up, that it seems almost insulting for the author not to get them right.

  12. I'd not heard of Gertrude Bell before. Even having read up on her (albeit briefly) I think there are a great many other people I'd think of first when apportioning responsibility for the current situation in Iraq.

  13. If you read Wallach's book, you will find that there wouldn't even have BEEN an Iraq if it weren't for Gertrude. She wanted a kingdom for a sheikh friend of hers, and got the mandate committee to draw the borders her way.