Fairytales of meritocracy

The words “historical accuracy” do not mean the same things to all people. This is, in large part, because readers read historical fiction for different reasons.

More after the jump.

So I’m not horrified to have someone call me historically inaccurate. I only shoot for historically accurate for some values of historically accurate. I certainly don’t want to feel like I’m in the position of defending my books as historically accurate for all values thereof.

Some people read historical romance because they want to be completely submersed in the mores of the time. They want to leave behind all the baggage of 2010. They want to live in a world where dukes reign supreme, where a girl has five hundred servants, where class differences are sharp enough to cut to the bone. They don’t want those views questioned, because that will pop them back to the present.

These people are annoyed if a lady and her maid have a friendly conversation—that wasn’t the norm back then! They refuse to read stories about lords who marry courtesans—that wasn’t the norm back then! They don’t want to hear about genteel young ladies getting ruined—that wasn’t the norm back then!

These people aren’t wrong. They are just stating a preference: when they read historical fiction, they want the views expressed in that fiction to adhere closely to those in historical times, because that’s what they like to read about. (They don’t always state their preference that way, but that’s what it comes down to.) They don’t want their historical romance to reflect modern sentiments. They want the historical dose pure and unadulterated.

So, lemme fess up. The “historical accuracy means no modern morals” crowd is pretty much going to hate my books.

I have said before that while I try to make sure that my books are historically accurate in the sense that the events could have happened, my books are not, and will never be, historically average. In fact, I lean towards the opposite—historically extraordinary.

I do that on purpose: I use the past as a crucible to explore the present. I write my books to feel relevant to the struggles of today, not to escape them. I acknowledge the norms of the time, but I don’t let them win. I write women who triumph. I let the romance be sex-positive. I write fairytales of meritocracy set in a land where aristocracy exists to be subverted and brought to its knees. That reality disagrees with the morals I import from 2010 just means that I have all the more conflict in my books.

This tendency of mine is most apparent in Unveiled, because frankly, Ash turned out to be the most extraordinary hero I’ve written. We’re not talking lady-and-maid having a friendly conversation extraordinary. When most people get in a fight with reality, reality wins. But there are a handful of people I would back against the crushing weight of reality. And when I realized that Ash was one of them, I tried to give him a sprinkling of the qualities that truly extraordinary people share.

Who do I mean by “truly extraordinary”?


British Empire: How can I help you, er, whatever your name is…is that pronounced ‘Mohandas’?
Gandhi: We would like some self-determination, please.
British Empire: HA HA HA. We are the mighty British Empire! Bow before us. Good-bye, Mohandas!
Gandhi: So sorry to hear that. Have some non-violence.
British Empire: Here now, what’s this? We can’t fight that with our army.
Gandhi: Take that with a grain of salt. In fact, have a lot of salt.
British Empire: …you know, Gandhi-ji, you have a point.


Jim Crow: Stand there. Live there. You can’t have that as a profession. And don’t argue! I am in control of the entire world, and you can’t even vote, so how could you possibly stop us?
Martin Luther King: Well, it’s wrong and immoral.
Jim Crow: That makes me feel strangely awful about myself, so I’m going to burn crosses in retaliation. Also, bomb your house.
MLK: Have some reason. Have some nonviolence.
Jim Crow: Your rational response seriously undermines our assertions that blacks are an inferior race, and that pisses me off.
MLK: Here. Have a dream.
Jim Crow: …
…That sucks. My shame just outpaced my anger.


Snooty Law Firm: I see that you graduated third in your class from Stanford Law School. I am unwillingly impressed.
Sandra Day O’Connor: I would like a job.
Snooty Law Firm: We do need a legal secretary.
Sandra Day O’Connor: You should treat people on the basis of merit, instead of external criteria.
Snooty Law Firm: Don’t be like that. Our clients would never forgive us if we hired a female attorney. Besides, your husband can support you.
Sandra Day O’Connor: That’s all right, dear. *has extremely satisfying career in public service instead.*
Decades later
Snooty Law Firm: Justice O’Connor. How…er, how awkward to see you here at the Supreme Court.
Sandra Day O’Connor: Why don’t you sit down and tell me what your problem is? I have some really great cinnamon tea.
Snooty Law Firm: What? You’re not going to abuse your authority?
Sandra Day O’Connor: Somewhere along the way I picked up the notion that you should treat people on the basis of merit.

(Historical characterizations subject to nitpickery, but these exceptions shouldn’t be cited to as precedent.)

Ash does not change reality quite as much as these people did, but I drew on their qualities. And that means there are times in the book—many times—when Ash is explicitly faced with the norms of the time, and cheerfully, happily tosses them to the wind. This is, after all, a book about a dude who is the heir to a dukedom who goes after a woman who he thinks is a bastard nurse.

And so yes, I am fine with people calling it historically inaccurate. If you go into this book expecting Ash, my hero, to act like the pattern-card of a proper English gentleman, you are going to be severely disappointed. If you are the kind of person who shrieks in horror when the daughter of the house has a conversation with her maid, you are going to absolutely hate Ash. He knows what all the rules are, and he takes a sly pride in breaking every single one. Deliberately. He knows that it Shouldn’t Be Done, and he figures that’s a pretty good reason to try it.

And so I bring to you a summary of the first few chapters of Unveiled (don’t worry, it’s non-spoilery).

Ash: You’re a servant here on the estate?
Margaret: *cough* …Yes.
Ash: The estate where I have effectively infinite power, and where you’re a bastard who has nothing?
Margaret: *gulp*
Ash: Lucky for you, I think that the whole notion of social class is an antiquated delusion and consent is sexy.
Margaret: Whaa…? What planet do you come from?
Ash: This is what happens when you go from dirt-poor to nouveau riche to duke’s heir. No respect for ancient customs, that’s me. Wanna have dinner? Let’s invite the housekeeper.
Margaret: That’s wrong on every possible level! Classes can’t mix. If you don’t believe in class, how on earth do you judge people?
Ash: Meritocracy. It’s hot. Try it out.

I’m not exaggerating all that much.

So there you are. Admissions made: I import modern morals into my historical romances. In my mind, that’s a feature, not a bug.

(I edited the post to move where the jump was, because it was causing problems on my main website. Go figger.)

33 thoughts on “Fairytales of meritocracy

  1. >>Admissions made: I import modern morals into my historical romances. In my mind, that’s a feature, not a bug.

    Here, here! Lovely post.

    But I’m going to be a stubborn little mule and argue that the perceived “historical inaccuracies” of historical romance are not so glaringly inaccurate. Some aristocrats spoke to servants. Some courtesans did become ladies. Some peasants became Emperors. These are their stories. (Law and Order style duh-dum)

    But we can go beyond the “exception-to-the-rule” argument too:
    I think it’s a bit of modern day hubris to think that ideals like meritocracy and feminism are only found in “modern” times. It assumes a linear progression of history which is not necessarily correct. I like to cite the example that we accept WWII gave a great boost to the feminist movement in the West because while the men were away at war, women took on jobs and became independent. But think of all the wars, in all the different cultures, across thousands of years of history. Must we not accept that there were longer and more drawn out wars than WWII? Can’t we not accept then that these circumstances created societies of independent, strong-willed women in those times?

    And alas, if these ideals are not progressing linearly, that means they can double back. An extremely independent period can be followed by backlash, subjugation, and class-ism in the next generation. Thus the line of progression looks more like a swirly paisley pattern: forward and back, back and forward. Kind of like a yin-yang symbol.

  2. Oh, I agree with you completely.

    I just think that the words “historical accuracy” are trotted out both to do objective work, as well as to indicate subjectively what the reader wants to read.

  3. I love you. Can I say that without it getting weird? *grin*

    This was, as usual, an intelligent post and so relevant to a recent experience I had. (A couple of weeks ago, my first page was on Dear Author with the aforementioned pleasant conversation between lady and maid, for example. And I had my reasons for the more mother-daughter-type relationship they had, but I digress). In the future, when I get comments about historical “inaccuracies” that might sting a bit, I will remember this blog post.

    To me, romances *are* fairy tales–exemplifying the extraordinary. No, it might not be something that happened all the time, but that’s not what I want to read anyway. That’s not to say I encourage shoddy research, but something like characters defying the mores isn’t exactly moving wars around to suit the story. Mores are customs, but not laws, not set in stone, and I find it hard to believe people didn’t buck the system every once in a while. (Um, Mary Wollstonecraft?) I like the fact that romances transport me to a time/place/situation where unusual things happen, especially as I see less of it in my life. With divorce rates as high as they are, I want to read about happily ever afters and true love. Now, if you will excuse me, The Princess Bride is calling me from my DVD player.

    Oh, and thank you.

  4. Courtney – I like that distinction you make for the term. You’re right — if a reader wants “historical accuracy”, it’s actually a particular attitude and feel they want. Actual fact and historical detail may in effect go against the feel of historical accuracy. Readers who want historical accuracy still want a good read and not a research paper. I’m thinking of a couple of reviews I read recently where some authors were criticized for using ridiculous purple prose when the terms the authors were using were accurate for the culture and time period. In this case, culturally accurate language actually counteracted the “historically accurate” feel for these readers.

    Sorry to go on! This is something I think about a lot. I’m always impressed with how well you define your premises.

  5. And this is why I love your books! I don’t want the average, as you say, especially in historical romance. But I also don’t want it in epic fantasy (Frodo is the UNUSUAL hobbit) or detective fiction. Lord Peter Whimsey, anyone? Or Sherlock Holmes? And then there’s paranormal romance, urban fantasy, YA — my favorite books are the ones where the main characters stand up to average, normal and given and say “no, let’s do this differently.” Sometimes that means they do the seemingly impossible, or at least the unlikely, because doing the expected or the easy doesn’t really make good fiction, IMO. Or good drama — ask that Shakespeare dude.

    I agree with you that there are some readers who say they want “accurate” and really mean “traditional.” Some feel that to the extent that they want things that are actually inaccurate, but they are familiar from having been repeated by numerous authors. There are books and authors for them out there. Thanks for not being one of them.

  6. Love it; thanks for the post. And now I’m going to be looking for a chance to say “have some nonviolence” to someone.

    To me, historical accuracy (and you’re right, it means different things to different people) is like that old chestnut about writing: you have to know the rules before you can break them. That is, if you know what was typical and yet decide to have your character do something atypical, that’s a meaningful decision for you and that character–and the other characters will react accordingly. That’s far, far different from simply not being inaccurate through lack of knowledge. The former choice enriches the story; the latter impoverishes it.

    Ash sounds like the best kind of dishy: smart, powerful, and kind. I’m eager to meet him!

  7. Your points have a lot of validity; however, IMHO it is possible to go too far the other way. Nothing destroys my suspension of disbelief in a piece of historical fiction faster than having characters spout the trendiest, most modern, most politically correct views…

    to universal aclaim.

    This was one of the things (though by no means the only thing) that turned Sena Jeter Naslund’s “Ahab’s Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer: A Novel” into one of the worst books I’ve ever forced myself to finish. As I put it in my one star review,

    “Even the most conservative readers would probably find the popular views of a majority of mid-nineteenth century New Englanders a bit disconcerting if espoused straight in a modern novel, so a certain amount of modernizing would be appropriate just to reduce the cringing. However, Naslund takes this to the opposite extreme by having Una espouse the Politically Correct view on every single controversy of the day (and some that only exist in our significantly sillier day) from slavery to whaling, from feminism to free love, from homosexuality to sensitivity towards the differently abled, all without consequence or even criticism. This latter is the most offputting because to have actually championed such views back then would have taken considerable courage whatever one thinks of the ideas themselves. Una espouses them with all the negative consequences that Naslund receives for espousing them today, which is to say: none.”


  8. FredTownWard, I haven’t read the book, but that sounds like it is bad not just for reasons of historical accuracy. At that point, the main character becomes a Mary Sue, and the world becomes a chorus-line in the background. And more egregiously than any historical errors, that means that there’s no fundamental struggle.

    And that’s boring.

    It’s much more interesting for a heroine to take up the cause of homosexuality in the 1800s at risk to her own life.

    That’s why I say I like to think of the past as a crucible for the present: What are you willing to do to get the things that we take for granted now?

  9. Noelle, here’s what I wish: that every author could identify which of the versions of “historical accuracy” they strive for, so readers could say, “not my cuppa” or “sounds great.”

    And likewise, that readers could say “this is historical accuracy of the second kind, which isn’t my cuppa, but maybe you’ll like it.”

    I think the fact that we use the same two words to mean so many things leads to a lot of name-calling and hair-pulling, when all someone needs to say is, “this wouldn’t work for me, but you have an audience in 3.”

    And I guarantee you, there are many, many people who have no problem with servants being treated like people. And there are certainly historical examples.

  10. Jeannie, I have to say that I just love talking to you. There’s a separate meaning for historical accuracy–which is “historical content that passes the test of modern believability.”

    …I really wonder what people would make of some of Anthony Trollope’s novels if their basic plots were reproduced today? My guess? “No way that would ever happen in Victorian England.”

  11. Theresa,

    If you know it’s outside the norm, you can also use that to amp up the conflict. Especially if you have a character onscreen who tries to enforce the norm.

    Now that’s just fun. 🙂

  12. Ah, accuracy. Now there’s a slippery word. There are as many definitions as readers. I, too, try to use the past as a mirror to reflect the present, but in my experience, most historical romance DOES incorporate modern mores into the hero’s or heroine’s world view. Or both. Readers expect, nay, demand it. They have trouble entering the fictional world if the character REALLY has the prevailing beliefs of his or her time. The objection would be not to the characters, we need to identify with them. But it would be a mistake, in my humble opinion, to misrepresent the odds they are up against (the external conflict, if you will.) This, like all generalizations, is false, but you get the idea. In the end, IT’S FICTION!

  13. Reading through this discussion makes me wonder whether it’s not so much an issue of importing modern mores into historical Romance or of what Jeannie Lin suggests, which I interpret as finding the moments and pockets in history where what we recognize in the present is also discernible in the past.

    That notion comports best with hist Rom to which I generally gravitate — those books that I can connect to through my current moment in time but without feeling that they are modern books in historical costume.

    Which links to what I perceive to be the difference between “accuracy” and “authenticity.” While there are readers who really do want the accuracy of clothing, serving ware, horse breeds, and the like, I think many other readers are looking more for a sense of authenticity, which may be more an ethos than anything else.

    Creating that ethos is no simple thing, though, and I think Theresa Romain’s point about mastering the rules before you can effectively break them is well-taken. When I think of some authors whose historical world-building seems most successful to me, it’s not as much the “correctness” of specific details (although dates, places, and well-known historical events are easy to get right and less tolerable to me when they are not), as much as feeling of transportation to a fictional world characterized by a cogent but still translatable “otherness” (i.e. verisimilitude). In that place, I feel as if I am placed into an entire universe that extends far beyond what the author shows me, one that remains consistent no matter which direction the narrative turns. It may not be a perfectly correct rendering, but it feels real (i.e. authentic) all through the book.

    Not every reader is going to agree on which books are authentic and which books are not, of course, but I don’t think that renders the vocabulary meaningless (or no less meaningful than any other aesthetic measure by which books are judged). It may all be fiction, but I’ve always felt that fiction is necessarily held to more stringent standards of logic and coherence than real life.

  14. Robin, I really like what you’re saying. I think that what it comes down to is that there are some elements of authenticity that we’re willing to let the author build, and there are some elements of authenticity that we won’t cede to her.

    What those are varies from person to person.

    And the interesting thing about your description is this: one of the ways I can tell I’ve hit on the right story is that I can feel that there’s more to the story than what I get on the page. It’s almost a visceral feeling for me. I’ve tried to start books, and when I don’t get that feeling of…fullness of experience…I know there’s something wrong, either subtly or not so subtly, with the story I’m trying to tell. This is frustratingly unfixable by logic.

    Simultaneously, I can write something and know it needs work but also know that it’s “right” in some ineffable way.

    For me as a reader, it feels different. But there are some books that are so utterly magically real–and I get this in a few paragraphs–that just says, “Oh, I can relax; I’m in good hands.” Don’t know what it is, but when I see it, I want it.

    And it’s true–there are very few people who actually want to read books that import NO modern morals. For instance, almost nobody says, “dang it, why is she washing right then? I want the full experience of body lice!”

  15. I agree! And I guess I’m also going to state a preference–that I don’t want to read a historical romance with extremely racist, classist, or sexist protagonists, even if in some ways that might be more accurate. But the thing is, I’m guessing that a lot of people who don’t want to see the lady being friends with her maid or the heroine proposing to the hero or whatever wouldn’t want that either.

    I feel like in the end, most of us do the same thing–we figure out as best we can the place on the spectrum of views in the past that we think best corresponds to our own place in the modern spectrum, and that’s where we want our historical protagonists to be. And even then I’d bet most of us (including me) filter our past-analogue to make it less objectionable to ourselves, the same way a lot of readers say they try not to think about the rarity of bathing and the poor quality of dental care in the Regency.

    And of course, even genuine factual inaccuracies don’t bother everyone. There’s nothing wrong with wanting your historical romance to be pure fantasy, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting Jane Austen (or Georgette Heyer, for that matter, whose own portrayal of the past was heavily colored by her 1920s and 30s conservative worldview).

    It would be so much simpler if we could just view all of this as reader preferences instead of framing it as somehow objectively “accurate” or “inaccurate” and then fighting about it! I’m sure we’d still disagree about things, but at least the terms of the debate would be more straightforward.

    With that said, though, I also agree wholeheartedly with Jeannie’s comment:

    ‘I think it’s a bit of modern day hubris to think that ideals like meritocracy and feminism are only found in “modern” times. It assumes a linear progression of history which is not necessarily correct.’

    A lot of stuff happened in the past that’s been obscured by the “official” version. The more research I do for my books, the more I realize that.

    Also, I’m very very excited to read Unveiled!

  16. Oh, I have so many questions/issues with this. But first, Courtney, EXCELLENT blog.

    Here’s the thing: unless the reader/reviewer is a historical expert, how do they really know the truth? I’ve found that most of our assumptions about historical “accuracy” come from fiction. Isn’t it true that Georgette Heyer made up a lot of the so-called Regency rules for her books? Even if she didn’t and the Regency rules were coming from a writer of the time, Jane Austen, for instance (she’s Regency, right?) the fact of the matter is…it’s fiction. And it’s just one glimpse. Who’s to say that a great deal of ladies did have friendly conversations with their servants, but because it wasn’t “done,” no one ever wrote about it?

    See the point?

    Unless readers/reviewers have a time machine, I think it’s best to give the author the benefit of the doubt.

    I also think that if readers are going to nitpick, then they would be better served by reading historical non-fiction. Because the whole point of fiction is that it’s made up. What’s “accurate” to one person might be “inaccurate” to another based on their personal knowledge and experience…but I know very few legitimate authors who don’t do a boatload of research. I trust that.

    I don’t read historical romance for a catalog of facts. I read for the flavor and the fantasy. And of course, the characters!

  17. Courtney,

    I know exactly what you mean about knowing you’re in good narrative hands — in fact, I think that intuitive or visceral sense reflects the sense that the more of the world the author has built in her head, the more natural it seems on page. That you get glimpses here and there of pieces of that world, that you get details dropped in naturally, that characters speak of things current to them — all of these things and more can reflect a fully developed fictional universe that mirrors a particular historical moment very authentically.

    My own belief is that it’s easiest to create that historical fiction the more one knows about a particular historical period. And IMO there are plenty of primary and secondary resources available to do that (especially with so many archives now available online to the public). Obviously an expectation for an author to know everything is completely unrealistic and unreasonable, but I still think the “historical” part of HR needs to mean something more than ‘I love Georgette Heyer & Jane Austen and have read every one of their books’ (which is a rank generalization not referring to any actual person).

    As for the issues of bathing, lice, etc., I don’t think that always comes down to whitewashing history as much as translating context. In a society where people did not take daily showers with commercial soap products, for example, would they really smell each other the way we might expect now? Things are experienced differently in proper context, and some things just do not translate to the contemporary reader, because it is so very difficult to articulate the full ‘normal’ context. By the same token, I get so frustrated when rape or wife beating is justified as a historical norm just because the legal system did not recognize domestic abuse or marital rape in the same way contemporary legal systems do. Again, that’s a context issue, IMO.

    And re Trollope, for some reason I’m thinking that one of his novels is an adaptation of the Longworth v. Yelverton trial of the mid 19th C (sensational bigamy trials in Ireland, Scotland, and England). Hmm, gotta check that out, because I can imagine people saying that such a trial never could have happened in Victorian England, too. ;D

    In response to Julie Leto’s comment about how readers know what is and isn’t historically accurate, I’d have to say they know it (or not) in the same way authors know it (or not) — by studying history.

    One of the first things that impressed me about the online Rom reading community was the number of readers who were either formally or informally trained as historians and who had a diverse and extensive knowledge of history. Given that so many readers also seem to be aspiring authors (at least online), I think it’s even more difficult to make a clear distinction between readers and authors in regard to historical knowledge. But more generally, I think there are quite a few readers who appreciate historical Romance because of their interest in history, inclusive of some form of historical study.

  18. I don’t think historical accuracy or even authenticity has much to do with whether readers appreciate a “historical” romance. Rather, I think it’s whether the story of the relationship and the HEA satisfies whatever it is they read romance for. Some of the most historically questionable romances are nonetheless the ones that invariably fall into the top 100 favorites–such as Garwood’s medievals. Most readers will notice the historically inaccurate or inauthentic elements and dismiss them if the other elements work for them. I think the best comment about historical accuracy appears in the afterword to Putney’s “Thunder and Roses”: “As for the penquins? Why not?”

  19. I like the historically possible but not historically probable definition. The way I explain it is that I like to read historically accurate books about weird people. There have always been weird people, and as long as the late 18th century feminists sound more like Mary Wollestonecraft than Gloria Steinem, and as long as society-in-general’s reaction to them is believable, bring them on.

  20. dick, I don’t think it’s that simple. Obviously there are readers who love the costume drama Romances, as the popularity of Quinn et al shows. And I think there are many readers like me who can find a wallpaper historical monumentally entertaining, even though I would argue they should be called something other than HR. And then there are readers who dislike wallpaper books period, because of their lack of historicity.

    Also, I find Rom readers to be among the most genre loyal of any readers I’ve ever come across. While I would agree with you that for many readers, the Romance becomes the pre-eminent requirement, I would not agree with you that all readers *prefer* ahistorical or wallpaper historicals if given a choice, or, more appropriately, if given a great romance in a historically authentic book. I do believe, though, that we have a tendency — as Rom readers — to buy and read books we find less than wonderful out of loyalty to the genre. And I think publishing has mistaken that, in many cases, for true enthusiasm, or for a message of ‘we want more of this and not something else equally or even more wonderful.’

  21. This debate always brings to mind something my daughter said after we saw the movie “Pocahontas,” and I began a small lecture on the historical accuracy of the story.
    “Mom,” she said as she stopped me. “It’s a story with a talking raccoon, ok? It’s not supposed to be accurate. It’s supposed to be good.”
    And that’s all that really matters. Readers will choose, or not choose to buy an author to suit their own interests and tastes, but for the ones who do choose you, your only obligation is to make it good!

  22. @Robin: I don’t think they prefer them because they are ahistorical either. I think they prefer them, because, as Elizabeth Essex so trenchantly quotes, “they’re good” stories that happen to fall into the class “historical romance.” And, if they’re good enough, it doesn’t matter that they may be historically compromised. And the reverse is true as well, I think.

  23. Yes, yes, yes!!! Thanks for this post!

    It’s absurd to think no one was pushing the cultural envelope in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was a great age for free-thinkers and revolutionaries (even if their free-thinking made life complicated for them). Wollstonecraft, Godwin, Blake, Marx and Engels, Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, Whitman, Nat Turner, John Brown, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Emma Goldman,…French and American Revs and the Revs of 1848 and the start of the suffragist movement, for gosh sakes….

  24. dick, if your point is that Romance does not have to be historically accurate to find a readership, I obviously agree with you. If your point is that because some historically inaccurate books are well-received history isn’t important in HR, then obviously I disagree.

    On a related note, I just finished CS Harris’s (aka Candice Proctor’s) first historical mystery – What Angels Fear – and loved it. LOVED it, actually. And there’s a fascinating discussion/debate in the Amazon reviews of at least the first two books in the series about the books’ historical accuracy, so clearly this issue is not limited to Romance. Harris, btw, employs the author’s note at the end of the first two books (I have only read the first and a Kindle sample of the second but have read some of the Amazon comments about the second), although apparently are errors beyond the liberties to which she admits.

    Harris/Proctor holds a doctorate in European history, and some readers were very frustrated by the historical rendering, but one of the reasons I adored the first book was that it felt *authentic* to me in atmosphere and other small details. And, IMO, Harris/Proctor is one hell of a storyteller, so the book worked for me. I have not cataloged the alleged errors and tracked them down, so I’m not weighing in on whether or not they exist, but they would not, I don’t think, retrospectively ruin my enjoyment of the book. Although I do kind of want to know now, lol.

  25. Courtney,
    You had me at meritocracy 🙂 People have a very warped perception of what history is. They base it off books they’ve read, movies they’ve seen and just ‘stuff’ (which isn’t always historically accurate in and of itself…) So much of history was censored by gender based/political based/religious based viewpoints with a mission that there’s no real way for any of us to be “historically accurate” unless someone builds a freakin time machine. And as for you importing your modern morals? *high five* Any author who writes historical romance FICTION has to angle the story toward modern readers or those readers would only throw the book at the wall. Great post!

  26. @Robin: Well, to hold that history has no importance at all in HR is a nearly untenable position to take. But whether the history in HR has to be what most consider “correct” history isn’t. Doesn’t your example of the Harris/Proctor book demonstrate that?

  27. dick,

    “But whether the history in HR has to be what most consider “correct” history isn’t.”

    For you, maybe. But there are plenty of readers who won’t read HR they determine to be too historically inaccurate (which the CS Harris series example demonstrated clearly to me). And there are plenty of historically inaccurate/lite books that don’t make top whatever lists, that are not read widely and loved and forgiven for their lack of historicity.

    Now, how MUCH historical accuracy is necessary is, IMO, an open question, dependent on individual books and individual readers, and yielding more interesting answers. One thing I have always believed is that great historical fiction is evocative of its chosen period and does not necessarily import contemporary values and culture into the text as much as pull from the past those things we in our time can recognize and understand. Of course it’s always an interpretation, but in the same way great contemporary Romance must build a credible contemporary world in which its characters seem naturally embedded, so, IMO, does great HR.

    One of my greatest frustrations as a reader of HR is books that feel as if the main characters and conflict are pasted on rather than evolving from the setting. Every period of history is rich with complex characters, issues, and social values, and IMO there are innumerable stories to be told that both enhance and are enhanced by the historical context (and context is, for me, key — a tapestry of many different threads that become increasingly discernible through extensive, broad-based research). As I said before, I do not expect pristine historical accuracy (nor do I think it’s fair to, in part because of the translation/interpretation issues), but I’m also not convinced you can have too much historical accuracy in building an historically authentic and compelling fictional world.

  28. As an author who has also had complaints about historical inaccuracies (including the *aristocrats do not engage servants* line), I just want to say thank you for this post.

    I have to concur with the idea of extraordinary characters in an ordinary time period. Beyond whatever mores each individual time period might hold, my number one goal as a reader and author is to find entertainment in a book. If I can read/write about a time period where the details and setting are factual but the characters leap off the page, then that’s my type of historical romance. Even some of the shy, reserved wallflowers that are so popular act somewhat out of the norm in the course of their character journey. One of my favorite novels of the 19th century, Wuthering Heights, features two very extraordinary characters: Heathcliff and Catherine. And I love them because they are considered so odd and different. Gone with the Wind–another favorite–revolves around a woman who pretty much laughs in the faces of everyone who would criticize her for not conforming to their standards.

    As a debut author, there have been times over the past couple of months where I’ve really wished I would have had the foresight to write an author’s note as defense against some of the “historical inaccuracy” comments which claimed my characters did not fit into the Victorian England mold. But in the end, as you said, there will be some people who simply take offense with characters who may not act according to their expectations of that time period. And that’s okay. Fortunately, we have plenty of historical romance authors for each reader to find the historical style that suits them.

    As for myself, I very much like your idea of author labels. I’m currently debating between:”Deliciously Flawed Characters in an Imperfect Victorian Setting” or “Ashley March’s Victorian England: Where the Heroes Aren’t Always Nice, the Heroines Aren’t Always Ladylike, and the HEAs Include More than Sex and Babies.” 😉

  29. Robin: “As I said before, I do not expect pristine historical accuracy (nor do I think it’s fair to, in part because of the translation/interpretation issues), but I’m also not convinced you can have too much historical accuracy in building an historically authentic and compelling fictional world.”

    I would agree, in part, with most of what you’ve written in the quote above, except that I think that it “is” possible to have too much historical accuracy in romance fiction, for the setting, whether the past or the present, is not the purpose of the genre. Whenever the setting is out of accord with it, that purpose will and should override it. The very formula upon which romance fiction depends–a relatively recent phenomenon–is, for most periods of the past, anachronistic.

  30. This is the second time in as many days that I’ve seen someone claim that romance writing is inherently anachronistic.

    I just don’t get it. People fell in love and had sex and experienced difficulties.

  31. dick, I agree with you that setting does not comprise genre (and not just for Romance), but it does have some definitional import on sub-genre. Steampunk, Regency, contemporary, etc.

    I’m a bit confused by your point re Romance “formula” being anachronistic. If you mean romantic love, well, that’s as old as human existence. If you mean love + marriage = family, I’d definitely argue that Romance tends to elevate the Republican model of marriage, but that does not mean such a model did not exist before the late 18th century. As a student of American Puritanism, I love the fact that in certain areas of the colonies where civil officials were less accessible, couples did not marry at all, but simply lived together and then moved on if and when the relationship did not work out. Definitely not what people think of when they hear the word Puritan, but true, nonetheless.

    I know some argue that genre Romance originated in Austen or Heyer or even Richardson, but I think the genre has an even longer literary pedigree, back to Classical Comedy, as well as the American captivity narratives of the 17th C forward and through novels of sentiment and sensation popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Certainly the literary celebration of romantic love is evident in The Song of Solomon, in Petrarch’s Laura poems, etc. etc. ad nauseam. As for the formalistic construction of genre Romance, while what we identify as core genre might be a relatively recent evolution, I think it’s got a strong, discernible literary legacy, is broad enough to encompass many different historical eras and cultures (and races), and is no more or less anachronistic than any type of historical fiction written in any era.

  32. @Courtney Milan: I wasn’t referring to falling in love and having sex, but to the requirements of romance fiction, i.e., that the falling in love and having sex bits have to be followed by an HEA.

  33. @ Robin: I agree again, for the most part. Yes, romance as romance has a very long history, but romance fiction and romance are, to me, different things. An HEA was rare and certainly not considered a requirement in romances of the past. Not only is the HEA a requirement of romance fiction as most think of it today, but it influences, of necessity, everything in the story which precedes it. The formula doesn’t “fit” with the past, whether we speak of the romances of the past or the past itself. Unless I’ve misread, that’s what Courtney Milan’s fairy tales of meritocracy suggests.

Comments are closed.