Thursday, September 08, 2011

The Pleasures and Possibilities of History

Writing in The Telegraph Sarah Gristwood recently asked "why have we fallen in love with historical fiction – and why are more authors writing it?" and came up with a variety of answers. The first of these was that
Readers can readily justify this sort of fiction because they believe it’s respectable, almost intellectually improving – after all, they reason, the plot’s based on real events (or most of it is). There’s a faint extra frisson of self-satisfaction at the thought we’re not just wasting our time – we’re learning something. Most of us would not necessarily be picking up the same tale from the non-fiction history section.
Historical romances are perhaps less closely "based on real events" than many other kinds of "historical fiction" because romances generally don't feature real historical figures as their protagonists. Nonetheless, in the course of a heated discussion about "mistorical" romances taking place at Dear Author, Jane argues
that the average reader thinks that the historical is accurate. I know that I did. I had no idea that Julie Garwood’s depictions of Scottish highlanders were so very wrong. I’m glad I know now that they aren’t accurate and I don’t enjoy them any less. But I’ve heard many a reader exclaim that they learned x, y, z from a historical romance book they’ve read.
Jane's expectation of historical accuracy matches that of Janice Radway's "Smithton" romance readers:
All of the Smithton women cited the educational value of romances in discussion as other readers apparently have when questioned by researchers for Harlequin, Fawcett, and Silhouette. Romance editors are all very aware of the romance reader's penchant for geographical and historical accuracy. (108)
and if we go back to the nineteenth century and its historical fictions, it has been suggested that they
were often taken by their audience to be representing an historical reality. Charles Dickens' novels, such as [...] A Tale of Two Cities, came to be seen as valid representations of the conditions of life and social injustice in Victorian Britain; Leo Tolstoy found the constraints of historical enquiry devoid of the human condition so, in War and Peace, produced an epic tale of tragedy and conflict that depicts individual experience and emotion; Walter Scott's Waverley and Rob Roy revived an interest in Scottish history; and Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame is believed to have encouraged a cultural heritage society to protect Parisian monuments. Historical fiction was lauded for generating a popular interest in social and national history, namely because it was more accessible than biography or "proper" history. (Young 3)
Gristwood's second explanation for the popularity of historical fiction is that,
aside from smug self-improvement, we read historical fiction because it’s wonderfully exotic and simultaneously comfortingly predictable. Predictable, because we have a vague idea of what happens – but that doesn’t stop the race to the conclusion being as heart-in-the-mouth as other dramatic novels. Exotica comes in the fact that the past is another country: they did things differently there.
Historical romances may not be "wonderfully exotic and simultaneously comfortingly predictable" in precisely the same way as historical fictions based on known historical events, but they nonetheless combine the exotic and the predictable. The profusion of Dukes, elegant gowns, and tight breeches provide a touch of the exotic while predictability is assured in part through the dominance of the English-set Regency historical and perhaps also because of the way in which that period of history is presented. Jane Aiken Hodge, for example, writing about Georgette Heyer's fiction, states that "it is comfortable to find oneself in a world where the rules are so clearly established, where privilege and duty go hand in hand, and a terrible mockery awaits anyone who takes advantage of position" (41-42).

Lillian S. Robinson argues that although women's historical fiction has the potential to offer the reader an "image [...] of social forces, their effect on large historical developments, and the influence of both on the lives of actual or imaginary women" (206) in practice that image is often
limited to aspects of life that remain the major feminine preoccupations, even as professional and political opportunities for women have increased in our own times; in this sense, they provide affirmation of present experience rather than the vicarious experience they are often dismissed for offering. Moreover, since historical fiction almost invariably takes the position that progress is desirable and that which in character, taste, or judgment most resembles present Western civilization is best of all, the context is created for a melioristic approach to historical process. At the same time, human personality tends to be portrayed as static, in that the most admirable and heroic characters have a modern view of themselves and what happens to them. The general impression one comes away with is that things used to be different (harder) for women way back then [...], but that women themselves were precisely the same. (206-07)
I think there's plenty to argue with in Robinson's statement (and it should be noted that her article was published in 1978, so reflects her view of the historical fiction available at that time). There may be, for instance, a fair amount of nostalgic historical fiction which "takes the position that progress" has led to the loss of important values etc. Pamela Morsi, for example, who found "the two decades before the Great War [...] a fascinating and fertile period for romance" (150) acknowledges that "The golden age of small town America is full of myth and nostalgia" (150).

Nonetheless, Robinson draws attention both to the way in which history is filtered through the perceptions and values of the author and to the way in which certain issues are prioritised while others are generally left under-explored. Georgette Heyer, who is often cited in discussions about historical accuracy in romance, does indeed provide a fair amount of "accurate and factual information" (Kloester xv) but
Religion as a mainspring of human behaviour simply did not exist for her. When Harold swears on the reliquaries and then breaks his oath, the question is of man's betrayal of man; God does not enter into it. Religion and the part it plays in human affairs was one of the things Georgette Heyer chose to leave out of her books. (Aiken Hodge 26)
and although she does mention the plight of the urban poor she does so only extremely briefly and only in relatively few of her novels. As Aiken Hodge observes,
Her Regency world is a very carefully selected, highly artificial one. Reading her books, one remembers with surprise that the post-Waterloo years in which many of them are set were ones of appalling depression and poverty in England, with ex-servicemen begging in the streets and a very real danger of revolution. (87-88)
It should be noted here that selectiveness and biases don't just affect novelists:
many scholars now discuss how history can be a construction reliant on the ideological perspective of the historian, as much as the documents she selects and those she ignores. This is a paradox that exists at the heart of the argument between traditional historians and writers of fiction who believe they are constructing historical realities. (Young 8)
Finally, Gristwood suggests that
Historical fiction also gives fresh life to well-worn ploys that had begun to look a little weary. Take unresolved sexual tension – or ''UST” as television scriptwriters used to call it. Hard to pull off in today’s free and easy society. But in any age before the sexual revolution, there was a good reason why a state of delicious distance should be prolonged almost indefinitely.
The suggestion that historical settings may appeal  to authors because of the plot and characterisation possibilities they offer rings true to me. Candice Proctor states that
Whether we like it or not, modern genre fiction typically fails or succeeds commercially not so much because of the "quality" of its writing (by which I mean vivid characterizations, graceful use of prose, avoidance of clichés, etc) but because of the extent to which it plugs into reader fantasies. (18)
History can certainly be used to facilitate or plug into certain "reader fantasies." Gristwood mentions the benefits of a historical setting when creating "unresolved sexual tension"; marriages of convenience and guardian/ward plots can be found in contemporaries but they fit much more easily into historical settings. That said, the plot and characterisation possibilities opened up by a historical setting are certainly not limited to those which appeal to "reader fantasies" of a sexual nature. Jo Beverley, for example, has stated that
One of the appeals of the medieval setting is the power of honor in those times, often seen as conflict between the social honor of feudalism and the personal honor of Christianity. (35)
Can you think of any other pleasures or possibilities offered by historical romances and their settings?
  • Aiken Hodge, Jane. The Private World of Georgette Heyer. 1984. London: Arrow, 2006.
  • Beverley, Jo. "An Honorable Profession: The Romance Writer and Her Characters." North American Romance Writers. Ed. Kay Mussell and Johanna Tuñón. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow, 1999. 32-36.
  • Gristwood, Sarah. "Historical fiction: Our new literary guilty pleasure when buying books." The Telegraph. 30 Aug 2011.
  • Kloester, Jennifer. Georgette Heyer's Regency World. 2005. London: Arrow, 2008.
  • Morsi, Pamela. "A Working Class Romance." North American Romance Writers. Ed. Kay Mussell and Johanna Tuñón. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow, 1999. 149-52.
  • Proctor, Candice. "The Romance Genre Blues or Why We Don't Get No Respect." Empowerment versus Oppression: Twenty-First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Ed. Sally Goade. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2007. 12-19.
  • Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 1984. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991.
  • Robinson, Lilian S. "On Reading Trash." Sex, Class, & Culture. 1978. New York: Methuen, 1986. 200-22.
  • Young, Samantha. Based on a True Story: Contemporary Historical Fiction and Historiographical Theory. Otherness: Essays & Studies 2.1 (2011).
The image, which I downloaded from Wikimedia Commons, is "History, mosaic by Frederick Dielman. House Members Room, Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C." and "Photographed 2007 by Carol Highsmith (1946–), who explicitly placed the photograph in the public domain." In the mosaic
The figure of History, in the mosaic's center, holds a pen and book. On both sides of her, there are tablets mounted in a marble wall with benches on either side of the tablets. The tablets contain the names of great historians: Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Livy, Tacitus, Baeda, Comines, Hume, Gibbon, Niebuhr, Guizot, Ranke, and the Americans, Bancroft, and Motley. [...]
The female figure on one side of History is Mythology. As the symbol of the theories of the universe, she holds a globe of the earth in her left hand. [...] Tradition, the aged woman seated on the other side of History, represents medieval legend and folk tales. She is shown in the midst of relating her old wives' tales to the young boy seated before her.


  1. Why would "A Tale of Two Cities" be thought to represent Victorian injustices etc when it's set during the French Revolution? Maybe "Little Dorrit" or "Hard Times" might be a better example?

  2. Lynne, I have no idea why Young chose that novel as her example. For what it's worth, the full text of the beginning of that sentence reads: "Charles Dickens' novels, such as example A Tale of Two Cities, came to be seen as valid representations of the conditions of life and social injustice in Victorian Britain." The inclusion of the word "example" makes me think that Young might have left a gap for an example and then went back later, in a bit of a rush, put in A Tale of Two Cities, but forgot to take out the word "example." That's just a guess, though, and still doesn't explain why she chose that novel as her example.

  3. Laura, great post as always. I'm always a bit surprised when people take issue with the idea that romance readers treat historical fiction and historical romance as edifying and educational in a distinct way. Maybe because the Radway discussion put it in my mind many years ago, but I've seen these types of comments on romance chat boards and blogs as long as I've been online.

  4. Thanks Sunita!

    I'm always a bit surprised when people take issue with the idea that romance readers treat historical fiction and historical romance as edifying and educational in a distinct way.

    I would imagine that defining "historical fiction" as fiction which attempts to imagine the past accurately and "historical romances" as romances which are set against a historical backdrop would serve the interests of

    a) readers/writers of historical fiction who don't value romances and want to feel that their reading material deserves respect


    b) readers/writers of historical romances who prioritise plugging "into reader fantasies" (and perhaps fear that too much historical accuracy would spoil the fantasy and/or lead to boring info-dumps).

    Here's an example of (a), written by Philippa Gregory:

    Quite wrongly, critics came to regard historical fiction and romantic fiction as one and the same genre; and condemned both for being fantastical, escapist vehicles for predictable love stories suitable only for women readers who required entertainment but no intellectual challenge.

    But a good historical novel has characters whose basic humanity engages our empathy and whose convincing circumstances remind us that the past is, indeed, another country. This is the opposite of romance fiction which is drawn to historical settings: not because it aims to explore how people are affected by the society in which they live; but because it depends on the imaginary glamour of the past: the long frocks and big hats, horse drawn transport, and high jeopardy. Romance fiction has no interest in different times and cultures, in the worst examples, its stories are told in a vacuum.

    Personally, I don't think one can draw a clear distinction between "historical fiction" and "historical romance." Gregory's statement comes from a foreword to one of the editions of Anya Seton's Katherine which is, interestingly, a novel that can very easily be read as a romance since it features a central love story and an optimistic outcome for the lovers.

  5. What a great post, pulling together so many sources with different perspectives. Thank you.

    I wonder whether, in the Young quote you and Lynne are discussing, she meant that his historical novels were taken BY Victorians as accurate respresentations of the past. It's an odd sentence but maybe a mis-placed modifier?

  6. Thanks, Liz!

    I wonder whether, in the Young quote you and Lynne are discussing, she meant that his historical novels were taken BY Victorians as accurate representations of the past.

    That would make sense, since Young's discussing historical fictions, not fiction which now seems historical by virtue of having been written a long time ago. I had a quick look and it seems that Dickens only wrote two historical novels: Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities. So when Young was choosing her example, she had to insert one or the other of them.

    The trouble is that the phrase about how his novels "came to be seen as valid representations of the conditions of life and social injustice in Victorian Britain" doesn't sound as though it's referring to a historical fiction set during the French Revolution.

  7. Re the reception of A Tale of Two Cities, Meltem Kiran-Raw writes the following:

    According to the historian Eric Hobsbawm, British people have generally tended to associate the French Revolution with the atrocities committed during the Terror only:

    In Britain…. this was the image of the Revolution that came closest to entering public consciousness, thanks to Carlyle and Dickens's (Carlyle-inspired) A Tale of Two Cities, followed by pop-literary epigones like Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel: the knock of the guillotine's blades, the sansculotte women knitting impassively as they watched the counterrevolutionary heads fall.[...] (5)

    [...] it is Dickens's novel, rather than Carlyle's history, which is responsible for the popular image of the French Revolution in England in our century, not least due to the popularity of A Tale of Two Cities on film and television. [...] In the preface to the novel, Dickens says "It has been one of my hopes to add something to the popular and picturesque means of understanding that terrible time" (xiii). It seems that, through the popular media, our century has fulfilled Dickens's intention, perhaps even more so than the previous century. What remains to readers and film/TV audiences is to decide whether this 'popular and picturesque means of understanding that terrible time' through A Tale of Two Cities does justice to that momentous historical phenomenon called the French Revolution.

    Kiran-Raw, Meltem. "The French Revolution in the Popular Imagination: A Tale of Two Cities." The Victorian Web.

  8. My apologies. I'm still puzzling over this one. I think it would have been more comprehensible if Young had written: "In Victorian Britain Charles Dickens' novels, including A Tale of Two Cities, came to be seen as valid representations of the conditions of life and social injustice."

  9. Oh, and I just came across some more evidence about readers feeling they've learned something from reading historical fiction. Anne Gracie was interviewing Mary Jo Putney and:

    Anne: When I was a kid, almost all my historical knowledge came accidentally —from reading exciting novels with vividly drawn historical settings. Do you keep educational factors in mind when you're writing or does the story come first?

    MJP: I don’t start with the idea of teaching anything in particular, but like you, I loved learning history through fiction. (That may be what makes a reader a lover of historical novels.) I think using real history greatly enriches a story and I always try to research new topics in each book because I like doing that, and I figure that at least some readers will, too. I also come from a long line of teachers and preachers, so I love that educational elements are there as value added.

  10. Now I really feel like I'm talking to myself, but since I wrote in my post that "romances generally don't feature real historical figures as their protagonists" I feel I really must add a note about Virginia Henley's The Dark Earl (2011). Thanks to a tweet from Jessica (at RRR), I discovered a review by Steve Donoghue in which he states that

    There are virtually no invented characters in this book, and almost all of its history is entirely accurate. [...] The book is about the headstrong young heir to the impoverished Earl of Lichfield, Thomas Anson, and his high-spirited courtship with Lady Harriet “Harry” Hamilton, and both the Anson and the Hamilton clans are here in all their chatty multitudes, with nary an imaginary “Earl of Kimbalton” or “Viscount Sedgewick” in sight. Even the throw-away details are usually correct; when we’re told in one scene, for instance, that the Duchess of Buccleuch was Queen Victoria’s Mistress of Robes for five years (or that Harry’s father had been lord lieutenant of Donegal), we’re told true. Readers of Henley’s historical romances are accustomed to her higher-than-usual degree of veracity, but even so: I suspect this degree is unprecedented in the genre. It lays the whole of British aristocratic history open for lightly fictionalized rendition, and it makes Burke’s Peerage into a Holinshed hunting-ground of dramatic potential.

    Apparently there are four books in the "Lords of the Realm" series:

    1) The Decadent Duke "about Lady Georgina Gordon who married the Duke of Bedford"

    2) The Irish Duke "tells the story of their daughter, Lady Louisa who married James Hamilton, the powerful and wealthy Duke of Abercorn"

    3) The Dark Earl "about Lady Harry, Louisa and James' daughter who marries the Earl of Lichfield."

    4) Lord Rakehell "about Louisa and James' son, Lord Hamilton. He was Gentleman of the Bedchamber to Queen Victoria's son, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales."

  11. I agree with your comment, Laura, that there isn't a hard and fast line between historical romance and historical fiction. But I do think of their relationship as a continuum, with history on one end, romance on the other, and historical fiction and historical romance in between:


    Any book can be placed on the continuum, based on how historically accurate it is, and how much romance it contains. It would be fun to compare placements -- which books would you put on which spots on the continuum?

  12. "I do think of their relationship as a continuum, with history on one end, romance on the other, and historical fiction and historical romance in between:


    Jackie, it seems to me that's a bit like trying to put things on a continuum from cotton to red. History is about a particular chronological/social/geographical context, and romance (as defined by the RWA) is centered on romantic relationships.

    But maybe what you're getting at is that history is about reality and romance is a genre of fiction? But both HF and HR are types of fiction. It may be that in practice, you've come across lots of HR of the "wallpaper" variety and lots of HF of the carefully-researched kind which takes as its protagonists people who really did exist. In that case, I can see why you'd come up with that continuum. All the same, I arrived at romance having read books like Geoffrey Trease's Violet's for Bonaparte, Molly Hunter's The Spanish Letters, Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel, Robert Louis Stevenson's The Black Arrow, Anya Seton's Katherine and Dorothy Dunnet's Lymond series. All of those either have very strong romantic elements, or could be classified as romance. I was introduced to romance via Heyer, and her The Spanish Bride takes as its protagonists people who actually existed.

    So I tend to think of History and Romance not on a single continuum but as the two axes of a graph, with one axis measuring the level of historical accuracy, and the other the romantic content.

  13. I love history and I love romance so I am totally in love with the combination. But even if a historical romance doesn’t deal with real characters, the socio-historical setting and mentality of the times should be recreated. It’s sexasperating when novels set in the XIII century have characters talking and acting as if they were horny teenagers during the Spring Break.

  14. I saw your recent post on this topic in which you write that

    Most serious historical fiction authors will run into two ominous characters: Mr. Political Correctness and Madame Modern Sensibility. On encountering them, the author is forced to make a choice on how to portray the past and its inhabitants.

    There are three unofficial schools that guide the historical fiction novelist in this quandary. One advises to depict yesteryear as much worse than today, an emphasis on our ancestors’ barbaric ways and primitive mentalities as if to make the reader think he is fortunate to lie in such progressive times like the third Millennium. Then there is nostalgic fondness: to describe days gone by as in Don Quixote’s Golden Age monologue, a lost magical world when everything was better and nicer than today. Finally, is the easiest and most common approach: show the past as a mirror of the present. People have always thought and acted as we do, they just dressed differently and were much more backwards (technologically speaking) than us.

    As only a witness could testify of how a historical period really was, all three approaches are legitimate. That doesn’t stop us purists from clenching our teeth when reading hidden current agendas behind a harmless historical tale or glancing through stories that are so anachronistic in language and mentality that characters appear to be attending a costume party.

    I lean towards the purist side in my personal preferences but I have to admit that, with the exception of my knowledge of late-medieval Castile, (a) I probably absorbed rather a lot of what I think I know about history from reading fiction (whether modern historical fiction, or 19th-century fiction) and (b) I have a bias against American English in historicals which, as TV tropes points out in relation to historical films, is not really logical, particularly if the work is set in the distant past and/or in a non-English speaking location:

    There is a trend in film and television for fiction set in times past to be populated by people speaking with British accents, even though the film is not set in Britain and the characters are not British. Sometimes these are British actors and sometimes they are Fake Brits. Occasionally, all of the cast will have British accents (irrespective of the actors' nationality) with the exception of the sole American star.

    Giving the characters non-British accents (American, Australian, Canadian, etc.) ought to be just as acceptable as giving them British ones — at least in terms of geography — but this is usually avoided, because it makes the characters sound "inauthentic".

    So given my less than logical preferences and the fact that I'm not a historian, I feel I should tread warily in this area.

  15. The moment I read your comment The Borgias came to mind. One of the reasons why I gave up on those series were all those Italian characters and Pope Alexander (A Valencian) sounding so British. But how could they do otherwise? There must be some lingua franca for historical fiction in English. What bothers me is when they use expressions that are far too modern.
    By the way, you have a great blog!

  16. By the way, you have a great blog!


    One of the reasons why I gave up on those series were all those Italian characters and Pope Alexander (A Valencian) sounding so British. But how could they do otherwise?

    Well, I suppose they could speak English with a pseudo-Italian or pseudo-Valencian accent, but I imagine there's plenty of potential for that to go badly wrong. Certainly in novels attempts to recreate accents by using alternative spellings and/or dialect words and/or a sprinkling of words from a foreign language seem to irritate quite a few readers.

  17. Romance can only be felt and teaching is an art. Thank you for the post.