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01 December 2010

The Other Side of the Coin-- or the Channel

Yesterday, there was a post on All About Romance about the pro-English bias in historical fiction, a world in which the English are always good, the French are always bad, and, yes, the demmed Pimpernel is that elusive.

There’s an interesting post to be written on the sources of this bias. Just off the top of my head, I can come up with half a dozen completely unsupported theories, ranging from linguistic bias to literary tradition to lopping off heads being generally considered both unsporting and messy to that nasty French waiter who corrected your grammar when you were on a class trip to Paris in ninth grade. Fill in your own explanation here.

AAR made an important point. For those of us who write in the early nineteenth century, while it’s fun to play with the burlesqued image of the nasty Revolutionary Frenchman (see Blackadder, e.g. Nob & Nobility), like any historical event, the Revolution consisted of multiple stages, giving way to the Directory, the Consulate, and finally the Empire. There were, as there are anywhere, idealists and opportunists, visionaries and scoundrels—sometimes rolled up in the same person.

This has been much on my mind recently, because, after several volumes of “English Good, French Bad, Please Pass the Port and Mind the Sheep!”, my next book, The Orchid Affair, features a hero who’s not only French, but a genuine, card-carrying Girondin, second in command at the Prefecture of Paris, and right hand man to Bonaparte’s Minister of Police.

My hero, Andre Jaouen, isn’t an Englishman in disguise or Sir Percy Blakeney cunningly masquerading as a Frenchman. He’s not an Andrew pretending to be an Andre, or the lost half-brother of the Dauphin. Andre isn’t an aristocrat at all, or anything close; he’s an avocat from Nantes, a provincial lawyer who got involved in the revolution from the ground up, serving as a delegate from Nantes to the Estates General and later to the National Assembly. A child of the Enlightenment, he read Rousseau and believed it, believed that man’s chains could be broken and the injustices of an unnatural order be set right.

With hindsight, we know exactly how the Revolution went astray, leading to rivers of blood in the Place de la Revolution and the rise of a pudgy Corsican dictator. But we have the advantage of two hundred years and heavy history textbooks. How would someone have felt at the time, not knowing, at the start of it all, how it would all turn out? I wanted to explore the workings of someone who genuinely believed in the ideals of the Revolution—and who is forced to come to terms with the way it all played out.

But we can still pass the port.

What do you think of the English bias in historical fiction?

13 Comments:

Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

A post after my own heart, Lauren. Because the first romance novel I ever wrote, THE BOOKSELLER'S DAUGHTER, took place in pre-Revolutionary France, among advocates of human rights and enemies of the Ancien Regime.

Imagine my surprise when I was told it would be a hard sell, set as it was in gasp-shudder-FRANCE ("just what do they think the language of love is, anyway," a friend grumbled in sympathetic outrage, "Latvian?" (with all due apologies to those of you who do your pillow talk in Latvian)

Reconciling the comforts of familiarity with the exhilaration of seeing history from as-yet unfamiliar angles is one of impossible tasks that I like to set myself, and that I look for in truly romantic fiction. And it always seems to me that no plot is truly romantic unless in some way it questions received opinion.

9:50 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post, Lauren, and very timely for me. Last night I finished the first draft of my book set around the Battle of Waterloo. While most of the major characters are British (real and fictional), the heroine is a French agent (unbeknownst to most of the other characters, very much including the hero). So while they're tending the wounded in Brussels, the heroine is as on tenterhooks for news of the battle like the other characters but in a very different way. And then when they're celebrating victory, she's dealing with the final end of a very tarnished dream. Waterloo is so iconic, but most of the fiction I've read about it is from the British perspective. Though my mom and I wrote an historical romance, "Shores of Desire", which dealt with Waterloo and had a French hero and a Scottish heroine. I thinking writing about it from a slightly different perspective is what gives me the guts to take on something that's been written about so much and so well.

As to the English bias, I wonder if a lot of it doesn't come from a common language. We can read English books, which tend to convey the English pov, without translation. Then too, I think we're still very much a country that was once a British colony. Though without the French, we never would have won the Revolutionary war...

10:26 AM  
Blogger Susanna Fraser said...

I agree with Tracy that a lot of our English bias is because of common language and shared history.

To me, one of the fascinating things about the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars is they're hard to break down as good v. evil, heroes v. villains. Beautiful complexity everywhere you look. That said, so far my heroes and heroines have been uniformly British, largely I think because that common language and history have shaped my thinking so much.

I do find the anti-French prejudice and stereotyping one often sees in America pretty annoying, though. I'm a tiny fraction French by ancestry myself, and ever since the "freedom fries" debacle a few years back, I've become a lot more outspokenly proud of that root on my family tree. :-)

10:46 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Such a great point, Susanna. It's that "beautiful complexity" that makes me love writing about the Napoleonic Wars, and also the French Revolution (which I've only written about as a past event, but it really hangs over early 19th century politics). There's so much to explore, and one can have sympathetic characters on both sides.

11:00 AM  
Blogger Jessica said...

As a French professor in the US, I confront this every day. Doesn't mean I don't enjoy your books, Lauren (you know I do) but it does, as Susannah points out, speak to a larger problem. I spend a lot of my time defending my professional existence, and, by extension, my adopted country-away-from-home. However, my guess is that the authors of the books in question (such as yourself) are not among the "freedom fries" set. I think Tracy is absolutely correct that it's the shared language and history (although, as I am currently reading an historical novel about New York, I'm reminded of the major role the French played in the American Revolution...)

The way I've always approached your books in particular is that no one is really a big Napoleon fan, anyway. I'm a devoted Francophile but your books are an escape from my daily life in academia.

Ceci dit ;) I'm looking forward to the French hero of The Orchid Affair.

11:15 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I've always found the transition that took place in England in response to the French Revolution interesting. At first, when the Rights of Man were proposed and passed, the Whigs were jubilant. They were fully in support (the Tories were horrified). But as The Terror took hold, there was mass disillusionment and genuine sadness, and a defensive response which eventually turned to the English horror of Petterloo.

As to the bias, I think you’ve all highlighted the main reasons already. If the Revolution had not resulted in first the Terror and then Napoleon’s invasion of so many of his neighbors, people might feel very differently about the French (without whom America would simply not exist; something so many people seem to have forgotten entirely).

11:46 AM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

I believe there is a bias, and as an ardent Francophile, I always try to find ways to get my English characters to France, or include French characters. However, I find the Francophobia in historical romance amusing, considering the ties the US has with France. Plus, when I watch American films from the Golden Age of Hollywood up 'til today, a trip to Paris is always short-hand for elegance and living your dreams (and to a slightly lesser extent, when a character wants to find themselves, they usually travel to Italy). No one ever travels to London or other parts of the UK to find themselves or become elegant!

4:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe there is bias against the French, but the real bias (in the terms of the Revolution) is against the French people in favor of the poor Aritos. While sending a large group of people to guilotine was not a good thing, neither was the starvation of the French peasants. History forgets how in need of a revolution; something had to change! What the French people. Daphne Du Maurier wrote an elegant account of this in her novel the Glassblowers.
I agree with the posted comments that anti-French bias is part of the revolution is more recent. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (certainly prior the Civil War) the French were our heroes, particularly Lafayette. And later they gave us the statue of Liberty. After WWII, Americans who had served sometimes felt superior to French whom they viewed as weak.
In recent years, France has become our enemy as they oppose much of what we do. Lauren I have a feeling you didn't mean this post to be so political, but it is since modern anit-French feeling has much to do with the politics of our
day.
I went back and read the question realized it was about bias in fiction. Heck I think THAT has more to do with our Regency obession. The Decade of Austen & Heyer. We have built up that era so much that most of all historic fiction takes place in the era where France was under Napoleon and britain wanted to liberate Europe!!
To be fair was subtle and not as french bias when you consider These Old Shades Alistairs were mostly of French descent particularly dominic Alistair. Her Hero Simon the Coldheart went on also to have French and English descendents (as explained in Beauvallet.)
Seriously though this goes back to a post recently why regency England. I think its kind of like the 1950s Americana, sort of peaceful, domestic, silly fun. I don't know.
What do you think?

9:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm. I Love it. I think it also speaks to the English's odd relationship with the French. Yes, they were the "Frogs", but even in the midst of the massive war with Napoleon, French style was still idolized in London. Women longed to run over to Paris. For England, an immense sense of tradition, and the fact that well, the English are in many ways an extremely exclusive club, have been since long before Agincourt, explain their almost jolly hate of the French.

To me, it is odd, our allegiance to the British, given the French assisted so largely in our independence. . . However, I think Tracey has largely called it. We not only have a shared language and history, we have a shared culture. Especially in regards to religion and a view of work ethic that largely stems from our shared religious moments.

9:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not sure what it means that we have a "Shared" religion. France is Catholic while more Americans are Catholic than any individual Protestant sect. We in America value religious tolerance while the British were our persecutors. I am also unsure of the what the "work effect" is.
I also respectfully think the shared language theory lacks explains some of the pro-British sympathies, but lacks a few elements.It means for literature I think Anti-French sentiments have more to do with current politics than anything else.
We like the elements of differences such as their titles because they add romance.

8:52 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

I think that the shared language and the mystique about the British royals play a part in the pro-English/anti-French bias in historical fiction, if we're talking about the American Romance genre in the 20th century. Until a few years ago, historical novelists (and I can name a number of them) were encouraged to stay away from French-set stories because editors perceived that readers didn't want them. Why? "Too 'foreign'?" "Too many unfamiliar words that readers can't pronounce?" I'm one of the people who do indeed believe that the French Revolution went about it in all the wrong way and that mass murder of an entire class of people, as well as regicide, solved nothing. In fact Napoleon out-ancien'ed the ancien regime with his over-the-top imperial splendor.

But back to literature. Until recently, and my agent Irene Goodman used to speak a lot about this, there was an editorial perception that readers didn't want the unfamiliar and that France invariably meant the French Revolution because all they seemed to be able to see were books set in the long Regency era, and editors didn't think readers wanted books where blood was running and heads were rolling in the streets.

I think Sandra Gulland's Josephine trilogy massively changed the way that readers (and hence, editors) saw the market and a sea change began to develop. This was music to my friend Juliet Grey's ears, because last year she was able to sell a historical fiction trilogy on Marie Antoinette to Random House.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

A child of the Enlightenment, he read Rousseau and believed it...

I find that a deeply engaging, touching, even romantic point of entry for historical fiction, Lauren, the dazzling thrill of a moment's possibility for change. And then, when the change doesn't work out -- when all the bad stuff happens and we have to wonder if it even could have worked out -- the necessity of going on, probably by finding love and community amid the wreckage.

Nice to know that a genre can begin to avail itself of opportunities to explore those moments where history and story can complement, rather than despoil, each other. Looking forward to The Orchid Affair.

11:34 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Fan girl confessional moment: It was Pam's The Bookseller's Daughter that got me to read Rousseau and think more deeply about what led up to The Terror.

I have a French character in my new series, and I’m REALLY hoping I get to write his book. I’ve positioned him carefully . . . if NY doesn’t go for it, I’ll probably write a novella that I can self-publish.

12:38 PM  

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