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.