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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

06 October 2006

It Takes a Village

A true, slightly embarrassed confession: I do a lot of my research through nineteenth century fiction. I don’t always believe what I read, but I probably believe more than I should.

Still, how can one resist all that social and material complexity spilling out of the pages of nineteenth century British novels? (So long as you check the facts later.)

Suppose, for example, you wanted to write a romance that begins with a marriage between social unequals, as I did, in The Slightest Provocation.

But we’re not talking about a Pride and Prejudice kind of marriage, which has earned the reader’s full understanding that if anyone dares question his choice of a wife, Mr. Darcy will eat him for breakfast.

My couple -- the younger son of a marquess, and the daughter of a wealthy brewer -- have not yet to achieve the self-confidence of a Darcy and an Elizabeth. Passionately in love, of course, they're young, untried, and perhaps a little intimidated by gossip and nastiness (though they'd never admit it).

And in order to give this situation some real depth, I wanted to be very specific about what the social gulf between these lovers would mean.

Well, here’s depth for you: depth and furious, corrosive specificity, from the Regency-era radical journalist William Cobbett:

The big [landowners]… make use of their voices to get, through place, pension, or sinecure, something back from the taxes. Others of them fall in love with the daughters and widows of paper-money people, big brewers, and the like…

Cobbett was spot-on in his facts. According to historian Lawrence Stone (Open Elite), it was bankers and brewers who bought into the landed gentry in the greatest numbers. (Bankers and brewers – now there’s a country that loves its ale.)

But it was Cobbett's poisoned italics that made me sit up and take notice. Because it seemed to me fairly likely – no matter how deeply in love they were – that my hero and heroine might encounter a certain cynical response to their marriage.

What I needed now was a setting for this clash of backgrounds and disparity of classes. I needed a social world to surround my troubled marriage, and I blundered into it while I was researching women’s charitable activities in the English countryside. Maybe sometime I’ll write about the fascinating stuff I found there and didn’t use. What I did use was something I should have known all along.

Because what better description of the contrast between landed and commercial money in the English Regency can be found than this one:

The landed property of Hartfield certainly was inconsiderable, being but a sort of notch in the Donwell Abbey estate, to which all the rest of Highbury belonged; but [the Woodhouse] fortune, from other sources, was such as to make them scarcely secondary to Donwell Abbey itself…

It’s Emma, of course – in Emma's point of view. And for all it's quietness, Austen's irony is even sharper than Cobbett’s. Emma was brought to new life for me by a clear-eyed reading of the passage I quoted above, in Superintending the Poor: Charitable Ladies and Paternal Landlords in British Fiction, by Beth Fowkes Tobin.

Because as Tobin points out, Emma may suppose herself the leading personage of Highbury, but the provenance of her family’s money (not land but “other sources”) puts her further below Mr. Knightley than she prefers to think. We know her other delusions; add to them her slightly windy protestation that “the Woodhouses had been settled for several generations at Hartfield, the younger branch of a very ancient family.”

Compare those mere “several generations” to the venerability suggested by the name Donwell Abbey (no doubt it’s been in the Knightley family since Henry VIII wrested it away from the monks). The subtlety – the precise notching of economics and a young woman’s dizzy, defensive self-regard – takes my readerly breath away.

But for the purpose of the book I was writing, what I most particularly got from Tobin (and of course Austen) was Highbury. Grefford, as I called it, would be a theater for a rivalry between the neighborhood’s first and second families. A village with a shoemaker, girls’ school, post office, carriage inn and drygoods shop – it would provide an audience for a love affair begun at the borders of a venerable landed estate and a much lesser one – and (no surprise) a love affair redeemed and rediscovered there.

In my next post I’ll write about a research trip to England’s Peak District (I know, it’s a dirty job…) in search of Grefford, the village in The Slightest Provocation.

But first you tell me – how much of the setting and the social fabric do you perceive when you’re reading a novel? Is it different in romance than in other sorts of fiction? And if you write, how do you go about finding the specifics – both physical and social – of your geographical setting?

Pam

11 Comments:

Anonymous Mary Blayney said...

To answer your question, Pam -- it depends on who I am reading how much attention I pay to the social and political world in which the characters move.

At the heart of it I am reading for the characters but when I am reading a regency writer whether its Austen or someone as second rate as the naval novelist Marryat I try to read between the lines (though never with as much insight as you did with Emma)to see how they reflect/perceive their world.

When I am reading my peers I know who cares a lot about the social and political aspects and who does not. I pay attention accordingly. I can enjoy a book that ignores those elements but always find the ones who do pay attention to be richer and more meaningful.

9:54 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks, Mary, but it wasn't my insight into Emma's subtle class distinctions -- it was critic Beth Tobin's, whose helpful take on this matter I grabbed and tried to run with. I considered calling this post "Lives of the English Majors" -- with all thanks to Garrison Keillor.

10:22 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

That’s a hard one, Pam. I think I tend to “perceive” the social fabric more when someone makes a glaring error than when they get it right. When it’s right it’s just part of the story, it’s smooth and it doesn’t stick out. I don’t think my perception of this changes with the genre of the novel (though I think it might be why I don’t so much enjoy alternative histories or paranormal historicals, as many of these seem to use the alt/para aspect to get around the “inconveniences” of the historic setting).

As for my own writing, like you I enjoy exploring extant primary sources (novels, journals, magazines, newspapers, etc.). I also read non-fiction books, but as some of these contain numerous errors (An Elegant Madness) or mush large stretches of history together without giving dates for things (What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew) I don’t count on them as gospel.

10:29 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm not sure where I really fall out on this, but I guess that I'm so fascinated by a different society's built-in conflicts, that I'm trying to understand them in order to use them to build a plot. AND because of the erotic vibe one can get out of power imbalance (all the stuff I hate in real life but seem to love in genre fiction).

11:19 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

As to how it is different in genre fiction. . . my first thought was that society and all its restrictions and prejudices seems to used as more of a frame in non-genre historicals. A rigid frame. Meaning, "this is the world the characters are moving through and restricted by".

In romances, it reads as more of a plot device to me. "These are the obstacles, now watch the characters work AROUND them or rise ABOVE them". Does that make any sense? Was that even the question?

Personally I love the latter, because I have that fabulous modern sensibility of equality, and also a personal opposition to being told what to do. I have to try very hard not to have my characters thanking the servants all the time. Just as I have to remind myself not to pick up dropped silverware at a nice restaurant. So gauche.

12:03 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I agree with Mary about reading for the characters--- Emma, Darcy, or Romeo and Juliet. The history makes it richer, more meaningful.
I heard a couple of editors at nationals say historical romance readers don't care much about the politics. I beg to differ. I learn something when the writer has successfully woven the politics in with the period love story. I am not a big van of violence and battle scenes, so I gravitate to stories where characters have to meet and connect while well-defined social mores are working against them.

Yet, why don't the same stories set in 2006 grab me as a reader? I always felt a little off-put by West Side Story, like the screen writers had messed with a classic and messed it up. Same Conflict there, but different clothes, different character names etc.

What is it that draws me to historical fiction? I'm still thinking about that one...

Kathrynn

5:37 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

For me, the pleasure of historical fiction is very closely correlated with the pleasure of romance fiction. In a sense, we know the two endings -- the love story, and for example, that suffrage will be won, or Napoleon defeated, or (in The Slightest Provocation) the right to habeas corpus maintained... well, maybe...

Anyway, in principle, historical novels that make good romances show people fighting good battles, in a way that makes us feel a secure sense of closure.

9:15 PM  
Anonymous Michelle Diener said...

Pam, I love primary sources. I can't believe how much inspiration it gives me. A detail I would never have considered can be casually mentioned in a diary or letter, and suddenly I have a whole new dimension to my story.

I agree with Kalen. If well done, the political and social climate mesh perfectly with the story and isn't a separate thing in its own right.

1:18 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Funny isn't it that editors insist that readers don't want politics in their historical romances, yet so many of my favorites ARE political. Pam's books, Candice Hern's (damn, I'm blanking on the title, but it's all about the guy trying to get elected to the house of commons), Jo Beverley's Georgian books where a lot of the plot revolves around court politics.

I find these types of plots so rich. Maybe because it's nice to see people striving for something bigger than themselves. Bigger than just the HEA?

11:44 AM  
Blogger Camilla said...

I'm with you Pam! I find the the conflicts built by society perfect for romance! My favorite starting point for reference? Old etiquette manuals. They, of course, were published for the middle classes of the Victorian and Edwardian eras (and I've just discovered that the lower classes and the upper classes disregarded the morality we see as Victorian--that morality came strictly from the middle class), but the influx of new money as welcomed by King Edward VII when PoW and on the throne, and his opening the doors for the entree of money and politics into other aristocratic societies around the globe was cause for much social confusion! I think that's the appeal for the American heiress/English nobleman romance: that awkwardness and uncertainty that arises between people of different cultures. Fantastic post Pam!

11:30 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks, Camilla. I've thought of writing a Belle Epoque romance sometime -- great clothes AND (toward the end of the period) telephones as well (I once got a very helpful email from Diane Whiteside, who knows oodles about the Vanderbilts -- fascinating).

I guess every historical period is a huge catapult into the future -- or can be seen that way. I think of the Regency period as a great coiled spring for energies that will soon explode: the wealth of the industrial revolution, the railroads...

But then there's the other side, the consolation of the familiarity of the past. And I can't deny that I take pleasure in that aspect of historical romance as well.

4:03 PM  

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