History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

14 January 2008

What Would Jane Do?

As an old joke has it, there are two kinds of people in the world: Those who believe the people of the world can be divided into two groups, and those who don't.

When it comes to Regency romance, the war of words between two particular groups becomes heated. No, I'm not talking about the "no sex before marriage" group versus the "sex was invented long before the Regency" group.

The first group consists of the standard bearers of historical accuracy - - the group who, whilst reading an outlandish plot, will frown and muse, "that seems rather unrealistic for a Regency." I call this the "What would Jane do?" group.

I don't mean to sound disparaging, not at all. Our own little band of Hoydens is devoted to research in an effort to get history "right", or at least believable. It adds to a book's realism when the author knows the difference between a phaeton and a gig, or that young ladies usually went out shopping with male footmen (for protection, don't you know).

On the other side of the line are those who love a good story, regardless of the little (or large) mistakes that creep in. "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story," as they say. I confess, as long as a story is utterly believable and the plot rooted in character, I don't have a problem with the occasional lapse in accuracy. We've all been guilty from time to time, which is why so many authors have Mea Culpa pages on their blogs. These are innocent little mistakes that don't really detract much from the setting. I made one myself when I had a just-wed couple kiss in the church. Surely no Regency couple would behave so salaciously in a house of worship!

But then there are the plot lines that are so far out, so completely beyond anything reasonable for the historical time period, that even the most tolerant of readers is tempted to curse proficiently, as Jane herself might say. I'm resisting the urge to give examples, but I confess a personal pet peeve is any plot involving the heroine disguising herself as a boy and stowing away on the hero's ship.

Surely some would include my own The Spy Who Spanked Me in their list of unbelievable Regency plots. The fiction of Regency England seems to be overrun with spies lately, particularly spies who already have jobs as Dukes or Earls. I couldn't resist the urge to give that new sub-genre a bit of a send-up. (Please be warned that the book contains acts that might offend sensitive readers).

So, do any of you have any historical romance pet peeves you'd like to share? Any sins or omissions of historical accuracy you'd like to confess?

11 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Doreen, I loved the title of your post, because I'm currently wearing my "What would Jane do?" T-shirt, a tongue-in-cheek gift from a friend.

I was villified by purist Janeites for some scenes in my novel BY A LADY, which is a time-travel, starring a 30-something actress from our era who is a modern woman with erotic feelings, etc., and part of the point of the story is that she keeps realizing that she's not behaving correctly -- but is behaving humanly (as in sexual). Of course, BECAUSE my story is a time travel, it's meant to be a fantasy and a romp, even though it's a thoroughly researched one. I knew what rules my leading lady was breaking. "I guess they missed the funny part," my friend who gave me the Jane T-shirt, would say.

I go nuts at historical inaccuracies, and I confess that I read more historical fiction than historical romance, and when I find a major goof in this sub-genre, which is all supposed to be so well researched, it bothers me tremendously. And it's truly unforgiveable in historical nonfiction, biographies, etc. When I was researching ROYAL AFFAIRS, my first foray into historical nonfiction, I was shocked to find so many errors of fact in some works of nonfiction. I felt like I'd placed my trust in those academics and historians to get it right, and when they violated it, I wondered what else they'd gotten wrong, and how I could possibly be sure I didn't carry their errors of fact into my own work. I can only hope, after reading several sources on any given monarch and his or her affairs, that I got it right myself.

5:20 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

The only thing that I really hate is when titles are wrong, because it's the easiest thing to research. And when heros and heroines are given names that are so totally modern, it takes me out of the story. Other than that, I try not to be too much of a historical purist, but it's really hard because I'm such a history geek and I know a little too much I think to be happy with a wallpaper historical romance unless the characters are compelling. I think the historical details actually add a richness to a novel.

5:27 AM  
Blogger doglady said...

I tend to agree that the little historical details add an indefinable texture to historical romance. My research library is small but growing and I try very hard to research as much as possible before putting something down on paper. Historical inaccuracies in nonfiction, however, make me nuts. I do not like laziness!

6:30 AM  
Blogger Maggie Robinson said...

I have written an entire (unpublished) book poking fun at romance conventions. One of the characters is a duke/spy, his heroine a feisty Regency miss. Yup, you've read THAT one before. *g* I love the title of your book (mine is Third-Rate Romance, because it definitely is).

6:59 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

What bothers me are easily researched mistakes in ANY genre. I came across one where the state capital of Alaska was spelled Juno instead of the correct Juneau -- this on the first page of the book. How could a copy editor let that slip by?

In my next book my heroine is very unconventional and I am fascinated by the whys as I get to know her better. My point is that almost all departures from the norm can work if you have done enough research to KNOW it is different and to explore why the character or situation is that way.

My next book coming out has a hero/heroine spy and I think I give good reasons for both their choices(note: he is not a duke and she is not of the ton) As for their being a proliferation of them -- you are so right. Can anybody figure out why?

7:54 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I've recently finished Pamela Regis' scholarly study A Natural History of the Romance Novel and was surprised by her take on Georgette Heyer: that the minutiae of Heyer's historical accuracy -- the wondrous richness of linguistic and class convention -- works in purposeful counterbalance to the unconventionality of her heroines, and that this contrast is an important event in the development of the romance novel as we know it. I've only read a few Heyers so I can't entirely judge, but I do think there's something to this argument. What do you guys think?

9:46 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I think what bothers me most is not "out of period" actions, but the consequences of the actions being ignored. Like Mary, I think you can justify just about any behavior in just about any era, if you explain why the characters would make those choices and then deal with the consequences they would face in the world around them. Perhaps this goes to Pam's comments on Heyer. In "The Grand Sophy," Sophy breaks a Regency taboo by driving down St. James's Street, past the gentlemen's club, in her high perch phaeton in the middle of the afternoon. But Heyer's world is so fully realized that you know precisely why it's so scandalous that Sophy does this. And Sophy's character is set up so well that you understand precisely why she does this.

As to spies, I think perhaps they're popular because intrigue makes for fun plots :-). I write about spies myself. I think--I hope--I've justified *why* they're spies.

12:12 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I think Regis' point is that since perhaps the 1920s (Heyer, The Sheik) romance has purposefully played with the unfreedoms and constraints of other times and places (particularly as regards women). The pleasure is to build a world of constraint and then to build a female character who believably breaks free. It's best done, of course, by a dazzlingly smart and knowledgeable writer like Heyer.

What Jane Austen does with a character like Lizzie Bennet who can't do much about her own predicament but laugh at it but who nonetheless never considers marrying Mr. Collins is more complicated -- and perhaps less available to us...???? I'm not sure...

2:59 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Mary, I think spies are evergreen because they're sexy. At least we think they are. Like pirates, except they bathe. Clandestine, cloak and dagger doings spark our imagination. Spies use their brains and their wits. They employ disguise. And spies always think they're doing something for the good of their country so an author can have the character justify his or her actions. And of course if you have spies, you have to have counter-spies, which makes for automatic tension and conflict, often with a ticking clock involved.

One thing I forgot to add in my list of things that make me nuts, are people who at the top of their voices consider themselves diehard Austen fans and then spell her surname "Austin."

Not to be snarky, but what the heck: Dorothy, we're not in Texas any more.

3:28 PM  
Anonymous romancefanreader said...

This was so interesting to read....every one of your comments made me think of the recent movie about Jane Austen. I understand there were some obvious inaccuracies in costuming in that story...which, to me, did not matter. I loved the whole movie and could overlook the dress code "faux pas"...but I could see how an author would not be happy about that more than the average reader/movie-goer!

4:36 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I love a historical romance heroine who shemes, plots, struggles, and survives---even rises about her situation and manages to do it WITHIN the restriction of her time. We know there were plenty of women in history who did this.

So, I am very forgiving of historical "behavioral" inaccuracies. Who am I to judge what was possible (or truely, really wasn't) for some clever, liberated heroine who was smart enough to get what she wanted (legally---like a husband or whatever) and not get arrested? ;-)

9:00 PM  

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