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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

07 March 2012

Historical Historical Fiction

Rose's post about Jane Eyre-- which everyone should read if you haven't already!-- got me thinking about historical "feel" as conveyed through fiction. Reading period novels provides an excellent sense of the "feel" of a particular time period, even if that feel isn't always exactly what we thought it would be.

But what about historical novels written by non-contemporary authors? I'm talking about the Sir Walter Scotts, the Alexandre Dumas, the Georgette Heyers. When reading contemporary authors-- our contemporaries, that is-- we tend to automatically factor in a modern bias. We allow for the discrepancy between the modern author and the time period the author is attempting to convey. We automatically take this into account when reading Philippa Gregory or Anya Seton or even Kathleen Winsor. But what about authors who aren't our contemporaries writing about time periods that weren't contemporary to them?

Thackeray's Vanity Fair, for example, was a historical novel when he wrote it (written in the 1840's about the earlier part of the century)-- but we don't really think of it as such. I don't know about you, but I grew up on The Three Musketeers and Ivanhoe. My image of the seventeenth century was shaped by Dumas, my vision of the Middle Ages by Sir Walter Scott. But Sir Walter Scott was a man of the Scottish Enlightenment, writing a romanticized version of a period far from contemporary to him, while Alexandre Dumas was a product of the third Republic and the second Empire, dictating tales of a swashbuckling past to his horde of sub-scribes. Their conceptions of the past are, I would argue, as suspect as, well, yours or mine-- but do we regard them as critically?

I heard this view expressed most forcefully in regard to the late, great Georgette Heyer, who is credited with single handedly developing the Regency romance genre. Heyer's research skills were legendary and her world is taken as gospel by legions of Regency fans today. But how Regency was Heyer's Regency world? While preparing for the class we taught on the rise and development of the Regency romance genre at Yale a couple of years ago, Cara Elliott and I dug into some of the literary criticism on Heyer, which pointed out-- rightly-- that her Regencies often sound suspiciously like her "contemporary" (1930s and 40s) mystery novels. If there's sometimes a Wodehouse feel to Heyer's Regency World, it's there for a reason; Wodehouse and Heyer were writing contemporaneously, reflecting the same influences. Her research is impressive, but her characters' mores and outlooks are as rooted in the early twentieth century as the early nineteenth.

I'm not sure it is possible to achieve an unmediated view of the past. But I do think it is important, when forming our views of what "is" medieval or what "is" Regency to be aware of the bases on which we're building these beliefs.

Where do your ideas of historical "feel" come from?

8 Comments:

Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Lauren - I grew up on Elswyth Thane's Dawn's Early Light. I know she was an incredible researcher and wrote it while the Rockefeller Trust was restoring Williamsburg.

Even so, there are moments in that book which feel like time travel. The characters and the settings leap off the page. It - and It's first two sequels - are still my gold standard for historical novels, in terms of making an era come alive.

4:14 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

It's so hard to pin down where "feel" comes from, or why one author achieves it and another fails (when you can't point to specific historical errors). Part of it I think is that successful authors create a fully realized world. In the current Regency pantheon of big authors, there are several that I think write VERY modern characters and dialogue, but because their world is well-developed and true to itself, you never get forcibly ejected, and thus the books feel as though they’ve got everything right.

7:55 AM  
Blogger dick said...

In my thinking, historicity has very little to do with historical romance fiction. As long as the "flavor" of the period is retained, the important part of historical romance fiction is the story itself.

7:34 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Ah, dick, I couldn't disagree with you more. Lack of historical authenticity results in mistoricals and fantasy romances that do not satisfy me as a reader in any shape, way, or form.

11:14 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

It is the little historical details that create the "historical" feel to me. Many Regency romance writers get the clothing generally right, the celebrities of the day, and some of the architectural details. But the ones who draw me in are the ones who get the little things right - no such thing as afternoon tea, gas lights? no gas lights?, dance cards? no dance cards? The year without a summer. When did the Elgin Marbles go on exhibit and where and were the rules about who could see them and who could not. I was a teacher. I expect people to do their homework. Otherwise, in the hands of a less than skilled storyteller it might become a contemporary romance in Regency drag. Not my cup of tea, afternoon or otherwise.

7:00 PM  
Blogger dick said...

I don't think most people who read historical romance fiction read it for the historical accuracy therein. Aslong as the most obvious historical events are correct, i.e. the flavor is maintained, most readers will not notice other inaccuracies. And, if the story is good enough, even those who know enough about the period to recognize the inaccuracies will probably forgive them. Even contemporaries, after all, contain inaccuracies, about which most readers, if the story is good enough, will think--well, it's fiction; the author ought to have got that right, but so what.

7:29 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Well, Blogger just ate my post. I write (and primarily read) Historical Fiction, rather than Historical Romance, and I do not forgive sloppy research. For me, the details are crucial. I originally got my period "feel" from the novelists who lived in the era in which they wrote (Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, Thackery, Henry James, Edith Wharton, etc.), although I admit to being influenced as well by those like Scott who romanticized certain eras (and "Ivanhoe" is certainly one influence ... I even adapted the book for the stage).

But I cannot disagree more strongly about research and the details. I am transported by an author's voice and her ability to describe her characters' world through indirect narrative -- a true skill -- placing me in the action alongside them, rather than gazing at them from a distance, as though they are quaint figures in a museum diorama. When an author gets it wrong, repeatedly, they don't get second chances with me. I am immediately taken out of the world of the book (and usually will, in the manner of Dorothy Parker) hurl it across the room. I have little respect for authors who don't bother to do their research, or who claim, in a historical, that it's all about the story.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Steven Rogers said...

Leslie, I get your point exactly. I cancelled a Civil War historical about a Southern/Northern mix of survivors of the battle of Chickamauga returning in Southern Kentucky to their homes because I couldn't feel comfortable about the different dialects which are critical in a story like this.

My one full attempt, a Viking story in which I removed as many latin origin words and mimicked Snorri Sturlusen as much as possible, failed on the other account: gazing at a distance.

I feel a little more comfortable attempting the story of disillusionment (inspired by my father's experiences) of the early fighter pilots of WWII in New Guinea who must have entered full of bravado only to get trounced by the disavantage of their equipment.

12:01 PM  

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