History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

18 July 2007

Clothing for the Indiscreet Heroine

I participated in a discussion about wallpaper historicals over at the Smart Bitches quite a while ago, and I was fascinated by the concept. Unlike some of the Hoydens, I grew up reading historical romance and cut my teeth during the heydey of the great wallpaper books. I loved them. I really did. I probably still do if I'm reading them now. See, it's hard for me to tell, because if I'm sucked in by the story, then I'm a goner. Is it wallpapery? *blank look*

What is a wallpaper romance? Hmm. I guess the definition you see most often is, "Can the characters be plucked out of their time period and plunked down somewhere else in time without any noticeable difference in the story? Then it's wallpaper." But I have a problem with this. I love internal conflict. Love it, love it, love it. And I think the deepest internal conflicts transcend time, and those stories could take place in a different era and be told with only a few adjustments. So what do you consider wallpaper?

Wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. The reason I was most interested in the blog I mentioned above? Well. . . I'm afriad I might write wallpaper historicals!!! I just don't know! But there is some evidence of guilt. For instance, on the first page of To Tempt a Scotsman. . . *grin*

On the first page, my heroine is wearing breeches. It's true! When Kalen first heard about this, she very kindly said, "George Sand!" (I think?) Thank you, Kalen. But the truth is, the breeches had nothing to do with research, and everything to do with those delicious historicals I used to read in my youth. (Lord Harry, anyone? Mmmm.)

I really just wanted that moment of conflict and judgment when the hero sees her, this woman he already despises, dressed in tight breeches. Now, she is wearing a long coat, almost as long as the dress to the right though not so full, but when she turns and feels her coat open and knows he's gotten a glimpse of the shape of her thighs. . . *shiver*

In my defense, she is already a ruined woman and is living in isolation on her brother's estate. She's also rich, defiant and the sister of a powerful duke. She knows what she can get away with and at this point that is pretty much anything. Any man who'd marry her after her ruination wouldn't be scared away by breeches. Not that she cares. And when she rides into town to meet the hero, she wears a very respectable riding habit.


But Kalen got me interested in looking further into this. There is, of course, George Sand, who dressed in men's clothing quite often. And then there is that gorgeous portrait of Marie Antoinette riding astride in breeches. (I couldn't find a copy, darn it.) She was also being purposefully defiant, from what I understand. But I found something even more interesting. . .

A woman named Kath Fryer pubished a biography of Henry L'Strange (1815 - 1862) called A Fine, Strong Boy. The Le Strange family lived in rural Norfolk, and Henry was a great landowner, descended from nobility. His daughter wrote of life in their town, "the labourers fared hard and the children were brought up anyhow, the women dressed in men's clothes and spent much time on the beach mussling and doing other outdoor work to the detriment of the house and children".

I was struck by the idea of rural women, isolated women, and the practicality of wearing whatever worked best for the job. You also read accounts of female miners and soldiers, etc. dressing in breeches.

Does anyone else have any other delicous examples? If we can gather enough together, I can use them to prove that I did my research, if a bit late in the game. *g*
And what do YOU consider to be a wallpaper historical? Do breeches seal the deal? Be honest. I promise not to be upset. I'll be in good company, regardless!
"And when a woman's will is as strong as the man's who wants to govern her, half her strength must be concealment." -George Sand

17 Comments:

Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Victoria, your heroine wearing breeches would not make me think it was at all wallpapery. I would imagine that you can find many instances in history where women wore breeches. Weren't there women who dressed like men to fight in the American revolution? I seem to remember a woman named Deborah who did so.

For me, a wallpaper historical is one where I have no idea what year the book takes place in, the language is modern in the extreme, the hero has a name that no Englishman of the nobility has ever had, and it's clear that the writer has done barely any research.

5:58 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

I like your definition, Elizabeth! I went to sleep last night thinking that it's a "I know it when I see it" kind of thing. I think that's probably true for me, but your def comes pretty close.

6:30 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

A lot of it is contextual for me. If the writer can make it work, then I’m totally fine with it. But it does drive me crazy when the season’s reigning belle rides out to Hyde Park in breeches on a bet or something stupid and then she’s still admitted to Almack’s that night. *roll eyes*

But then I enjoy writing characters who'd never be allowed to cross the threshold of Almack's. LOL! Scoundrels, scamps and wantons. That's my line. *grin* And I have no intention of redeeming them to the point where they’re socially acceptable again. None at all.

It’s funny, but I think my first heroine would be the most likely to wear breeches of all the ones I’ve written so far, but I’ve never been able to picture her actually doing so (ok, wearing them under her habit, yes, but not without a habit). I think George is far too aware that men want what they can’t see far more than they want what the can see . . . the allure of mystery. Yes, I’m way too deep into my characters’ heads. LOL!

8:31 AM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

I don't think of wallpaper historicals as stories that could be moved to any era--I totally agree with you, Victoria, that a lot of classic plots and conflicts transcend the era (this of Rome and Juliet and West Side Story). To me a wallpaper historical is a book where the women wear long dresses and there are carriages, but you really can't tell what era the book is set in. I could totally buy a heroine where breeches for all sort of reasons. I think the only time I've had a heroine do it was Mélanie in "Beneath a Silent Moon" who put on the clothes to go investigating in the Scottish countryside in the middle of the night. I can't imagine her wearing them to go riding in Hyde Park (I can see a heroine who would, but Kalen's right about her having trouble with the patronesses of Almack's).

9:37 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Check out this neat, smart book about women in pants thru recent history: Women in Pants, by Catherine Smith and Cynthia Grieg

10:04 AM  
Anonymous Louisa Edwards said...

Believe it or not, I'd never heard the term 'wallpaper historicals' before. I think Elizabeth's definition is probably the most sensible, but for some reason, the fact that the term exists still sort of bugs me. It seems like one of those classifications we, within the genre, have put on each other to cut down other writers, and I just hate that. It's not that I don't believe there are badly written historicals out there--God, no. I guess it's more that a blanket, shorthand term like that can be so dangerously easy to misuse, and to misunderstand. It lets us off the hook from trying to classify exactly what was wrong with a particular book. Does that make sense? It feels lazy, in a slightly smug, superior way.

Thanks for taking it on and making us look at it! This is a fabulous blog. I'm glad I got to meet some of y'all at Naionals...

10:55 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Well, for God's sake, Pam. How did I miss that? LOL

Hi Tracy and Louisa! I think you're both right. ;-)

Louisa, that's why I was riveted by the original discussion! I heard this term and thought, "Ohmigod, is that ME? Am I am wallpapery?" But I was soon able to shrug it off. Anybody can call a book anything she wants, that doesn't make it a valid point.

11:00 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

For me, wallpaper historicals can also include books where the details just don't add up, or where they jar me out of the book. I was reading a book the other day that claims to be set in the Regency, but one of the characters is wearing a "crinoline" that makes noise when she walks. *huh?* This detail is immediately Victorian for me. The crinoline wasn’t even invented until the late 1850s.

11:02 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

To further clarify my definition, I guess 'wallpaper' historicals to me be feel generic. There's no sense of the period, of what's happening outside the four walls of the townhouse/country house. The story may be universal, but it's the details that anchor the story and give it weight. Having said that, there have been some so-called 'wallpaper' historicals, that I thoroughly enjoyed because the characters were engaging.

11:13 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Yep, she was defiant--riding horseback in her man's clothes.

She was thought to be barren at that time and had been married several years. She'd kinda thumbing that in the family's faces there.

She went on to have children, of course. But that image of her is priceless! Pity the real leopard who gave up his skin for that.

Ahh, Madame Antoinette. Not the wallpaper kinda heroine, I think.

To see her on horseback, check out:

http://www.ladyreading.net/marieantoinette/big/marie119.jpg

12:32 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Bless you, woman!

I'll post it now.

12:45 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Supposedly her ladies in waiting rode astride with her as well. Didn't we talk about this a while back on the blog?

2:50 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

I'm almost sure we did, Kalen. I think you even linked to a picture, which was why I thought I was going to lose my mind at midnight last night. I couldn't find one online, and it was really hard to give up after a whole hour with nothing to show for it!!! ;-)

3:34 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I've heard the term, "wallpaper," but I never really thought about it before now. Actually, I think wallpaper's a very good term for a book that's all surface/no substance -- clothes, manners, even a historical event or two as decor.

9:56 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

And in fact, I fairly recently gave up writing a book set in Manchester, because I didn't have the skill to make the horrible epic of industrialization more than a wallpaper background for my love story.

6:36 AM  
Blogger Laura Vivanco said...

Victoria, I'm no expert on this, but I have thought about it a little and I wrote about wallpaper historicals a while back. My feeling is that although 'wallpaper' gets used as a derogatory term to describe historicals which don't seem to get the historical details exactly right, that doesn't necessarily make them bad. They're just using history in a different way (like Shakespeare sometimes did).

I've also posted a bit more about history and the different uses of history in historical fiction and historical romances here.

4:46 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Thank you, Laura. That was delicious!!!

6:08 PM  

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