Should our characters, our backgrounds, and our plot details be scrupulously accurate to the period in which they are set?
Why write historicals if they’re not set in history?
I’m the first to put my hand up and admit I’m pedantic. I obsess over things like when and how the news of Trafalgar and Nelson’s death arrived in Bath (a plot point in Candle’s Christmas Chair). I’ve written blog posts about:
- the number of dukes in the United Kingdom (and the number of people in each other rank of the peerage)
- the way I changed my story line to accommodate to accommodate the justice system in the early 19th century
- my research into cottage cooking to check that a plot line involving jam would actually work (and, in another blog post, my explorations of the cost of sugar to make sure that the heroine could afford the jam)
- a bit of fun with language, when my use of the term c–k to mean a male bird was frowned on by a commenter.
And other readers care, too. I was called out by one reader when a minor character in Candle’s Christmas Chair said he was okay. Quite right, too. Thanks to the magic of ebooks, I was able to remove a word that belonged decades in the future and on the other side of the Atlantic.
To me, it seems ridiculous to even bother writing “historical fiction” (be it romance, mystery, whathaveyou) if the “historical” part is optional. I know, I know . . . in Romancelandia a lot of the history has become optional: our characters are abnormally clean, have perfect teeth, and somehow our heroes never have the ridiculous haircuts that were in vogue for their age (has anyone ever written or read a medieval hero with a bowl cut?). Is a man with Fabio-locks in the Middle Ages any less offensive than a red silk nighty in Regency England? I think they’re both problematic, both a betrayal of the entire point of the genre…
Perhaps I’m being ridiculous, but the willfully chosen error just gets under my skin and itches like mad! There’s something demeaning about it, something dismissive. Something about it says: It was too much trouble to find a way to make my vision/story work within the framework of history, and rather than alter my vision/story, I chose to alter history instead.
But we’re not writing history books
On the other hand, we’re writing fiction, not history. And we’re writing fiction for today’s readers, for whom real historical accuracy might be a step too far, as this Heroes and Heartbreaker’s post comments:
…in some cases a too-strict reliance on historical detail can be just as off-putting. A classic example of this phenomenon is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, in which hero Jamie gets fed up with heroine Claire’s bad habit of putting his men into mortal danger through her dangerously unpredictable behavior, so he beats her. He beats her! Gabaldon’s response to the clamor around this scene (paraphrased) was “I scrupulously researched every aspect of this book and Jamie’s actions and attitudes are fully consistent with those of a man in that time and place so obviously it’s all good because REALISM!!!” To which I can only reply…yes, from a historic standpoint, Jamie’s actions are unexceptional, but on the other hand this is a book whose plot kicks into gear when the heroine travels backward through time, so…well, I wouldn’t have missed that scene if it weren’t there, is all I’m saying.
…historical romance is more beholden to the constraints of the romance genre than it is to the reality of history. While historical fiction may generally aim to simulate the past for readers through painstaking attention to detail, historical romance’s overriding preoccupation is different. Emotional authenticity in the development of the relationship is far more important to the genre than strict fidelity to a historical or geographic setting.
Historical settings open up a range of concerns and possibilities to authors, some because they are similar to the present day and others because they are different. To cite just one example in the latter category, the consequences for unintended pregnancy were much different for an upper-class unmarried woman of Regency England than they are for most twenty-first-century readers. The elevated risks associated with extramarital sex can be used to raise the stakes for heroes and heroines in a way that would be out of place in a contemporary novel.
At the same time, historical settings provide a way to explore themes and issues that are vital to contemporary concerns. The remote past can serve as a safe space in which authors can tackle more sensitive topics without hitting too close to home for readers.
Heroes and heroines with postmodern sensibilities are a natural consequence of being written by authors of the twenty-first century. Expecting writers to purge their work of any trace of modern perspective is unrealistic in a genre predicated upon the reader’s connection to the novel’s protagonists.
And some anachronisms are not anachronisms at all
I’ve also been jarred by something in a novel, gone to check the facts, and found that my idea of historical fact was out of tune with what really happened. Perhaps a book has a hero using dental floss in pre-World War I Great Britain. Anachronism?
in James Joyce’s Ulysses, a minor character, Professor MacHugh, “took a reel of dental floss from his waistcoat pocket and, breaking off a piece, twanged it smartly between two and two of his resonant unwashed teeth”. This feels all wrong, and you’d be hard pushed to find any other reference to dental floss – pretty much, in any literature ever – but there it is, in a book produced in 1918-20 and set in 1904. [Guardian article on anachronisms that aren’t]
I’ve recently had this experience with Candle’s Christmas Chair. Many reviewers have commented on Min’s profession. (She designs and makes invalid’s chairs.) To some, she is reflecting the start of feminism. To others, my choice of career for her is ridiculous, and a total anachronism. Working class women, of course, always held down an income-earning job or range of jobs. But women of the tradesman and merchant classes, according to my reviewers, stayed at home and managed the servants.
Both types of review see history through a lens of Victorian middle-class sensibilities. I’m not going to write here about the invisible women who thronged the trades, crafts, and professions from medieval times until the Victorian era. That’s a topic for another blog post. Suffice it to say that we should be cautious about labelling something as an error, either intended or unintended.
Do you care?
Different people are annoyed by different things. I got this neat chart of allergens from a thoughtful digest of posts on Likes Books.
So what do you think? Do you hate historical inaccuracy in books? Does a book blurb that refers to Richard III as the King of York remove any desire to read the book? Or do you not care as long as the story is good?