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.*
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?
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.)