History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

24 September 2012

Names & Context

When I first heard the name of Joan's baby on Mad Men this past season, I thought, "Kevin sounds sort of modern for the sixties." Then I realized Mad Men was now taking place in the year I was born (1966), and I went to school with a number of Kevins, so it was in fact a very appropriate name. I just don't associate it with the sixties because the people I think of when I think of the sixties were adults then and born decades before. Which made me think about naming characters in historical fiction and how we need to consider the cultural influences not of the time in which are our books are set but of when our characters were born. Characters in their thirties or twenties in the Regency would have been named in the 1780s or 90s. When they were born, their parents might have been reading Henry Fielding, Fanny Burney, or Alexander Pope not Jane Austen, William Wordsworth, or Lord Byron. Those in their twenties and thirties in the early Victorian era on the other hand would have been born in the Regency. While the name Victoria didn't soar in popularity until after Victoria became queen.

I'm writing this post as I watch the Emmy Awards. I suspect that if one looked at the names of characters in television shows and books, one would find more similarities to the names of babies born when those shows were aired or books were published than one would if one looked at real life adults the same age as the characters. Partly, of course, because names from popular culture inspire parents in naming their children. But also, I think, because the writers naming those characters are living in the same world with the same cultural influences as the parents naming their babies.

It can be a challenge, in historical fiction, finding a name that's historically accurate but still appeals to modern readers. Victorian names like Gladys or Edith would be problematic for the heroine of a novel written today, even if that novel was set in the late 1800s or early 1900s when those names were in vogue. On the other hand, a name like Jessica can sound modern and trendy though it's the name of a Shakespeare character and could certainly have been used historically (I used Jessica for Malcolm and Suzanne's daughter, though it didn't make my short list for my own baby girl because it did strike me as too trendy).

Authors, how do you choose names for your characters? Do you consider cultural influences when the characters were born? Readers, what matters more to you in the names of characters, historical authenticity or names you can relate to?

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17 September 2012

May I please present ...

I’ve been having a fascinating discussion on Twitter about introductions. My understanding of “the rules” is that gentlemen are always introduced to ladies (and here we’re talking about people of the same class, not the lower orders or servants).

High Change in Bond Street by Gillray, 1796

Men being anything but gentlemanly
as they crowd the ladies into the dirty street.


This is because women are the ones with reputations to guard and it should always be up to them if they wish to have a gentleman presented to them or not. But one of my favorite people to blab with (who also happens to be British) quite firmly believes that a viscount’s daughter would be introduced to a duke because the duke is of a higher rank.

On the one hand I get what she’s saying, as “the rules” also state that inferiors are introduced to superiors, but I’ve always understood that “the lady rule” trumps the “inferior/superior” rule.

I went digging for some kind of actual documentation to clear the issue up, but I can’t find anything from the Georgian period. My guess is that etiquette books only really became a necessity in the Victorian era when the burgeoning middle class was becoming a power to be reckoned with. Before that, the proper way of doing things would have simply been instilled by your family. This might also explain why the vast majority of these guides (especially the earlier ones) are American. The “great unwashed” wasn’t learning these things at their mother’s knee.

The oldest source I can find is American, but it expresses the concept just as I understand it:

Etiquette for Ladies (Philadelphia, 1840)

“…in the introduction of ladies to each other, and to gentlemen, infinitely more care is necessary, as a lady cannot shake off an improper acquaintance with the same facility as a gentleman can do, and their character is much easier affected by apparent contact with the worthless and dissipated.”

“No person of correct feeling will make an introduction to a lady, without having first apprized her of it, and obtained her consent.”

The first English source I can find is The Hand-Book of Etiquette (London, 1860).

“Introduce gentlemen to ladies, not ladies to gentlemen, for etiquette takes a chivalrous view of the subject and looks upon the lady as the superior. It is the law of introductions to introduce the inferior to the superior.”

Emily Post says the same thing in 1922: “No lady is ever, except to the President of the United States, a cardinal, or a reigning sovereign, presented to a man.” And Debrett’s agrees: “If you are the link between people who have never met it is up to you to make the introductions. Remember the hierarchy: men should be introduced to women, juniors to elder people and higher ranks.”

None of these sources says anything about a peerage trumping the gender rule, but of course they’re not written for the haut ton. I tried to find plays or novels that might show me such a scene, but I came up with nothing. Anyone have a resource I’m missing?

Let’s be honest, this is all just academic, because if a duke was bad enough that a viscount’s daughter wouldn’t want to be acquainted with him, no one in society would introduce him to her in the first place! But I still love kicking these things around …

02 September 2012

Capturing a Moment in Time


I just returned from a lovely few days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with my daughter Mélanie (there we are at the Member Lounge, though Mel is still a little young to actually go the plays). Along with some wonderful Shakespeare my friends and I saw a great new play OSF commissioned, All the Way, by Robert Shenkkan, about Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act. Very much in the style of a Shakespeare history play, it's set on a broad canvas, with a wide cast of characters - politicians from both parties, Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders, J. Edgar Hoover.

I came home to Lauren's wonderful blog about Regencyland and the difficulties of
"winkling out those elusive distinctions" of a specific year within a larger time period. As Lauren said, "Letters and diaries are even more revealing, the unmediated product of the moment." All the Way uses the actual words of the characters in many cases. It's set from November 1963 - November 1964. And though we talk about "the sixties' as we talk about "the Regency" or "the Victorian era", 1960 was certainly very different from 1969, and 1963-4 was very different from either. All the Way gives a richly detailed portrait of a specific moment in time. The start of the LBJ presidency, the maneuvering over the Civil Rights Act, Freedom Summer, the presidential campaign, Hoover's vendetta against Martin Luther King, the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Yet it creates this complex portrait of the time period through the personal portraits of the characters - their goals, personal and political, their alliances and conflicts, in many cases their relationships with their spouses. Some of the most haunting moments are personal snapshots. LBJ telling Lady Bird to fix her lipstick just before they get off the plane where he's been sworn in after JFK's assassination. Coretta King helping MLK pack and telling him the kids are starting to see him as a stranger. LBJ telling his aide Walter Jenkins he's the closest thing he has to a son and Jenkins gently removing LBJ's glasses, visibly touched, shortly before Jenkins is photographed in a tryst with another man and shunted off to a mental hospital.

I realized that it's similar personal details that evoke a time and place in our books. In The Garden Intrigue, Lauren captures Napoleon's court just before it becomes an actual court when Napoleon makes himself emperor. Napoleon is at the height of his power, still married to Josephine though he's under pressure to divorce her. Hortense Bonaparte is unhappy in her marriage to Louis, pregnant with her second child, not yet in love with Charles de Flahaut. Some of the informality of the Consular era lingers as while Imperial formality begins to creep in. A couple of years before or after Paris would be a different place. In Vienna Waltz, I tried to use the circumstances of the characters to evoke the complexities of the Congress of Vienna. Prince Talleyrand holding on to power in the restored Bourbon government and using all his wits to keep defeated France a player in the international game. Dorothée Talleyrand feeling her wings in love and politics. Wilhelmine of Sagan desperate to recover her daughter and using both Prince Metternich and Tsar Alexander to do so. These characters appear again in my forthcoming The Paris Affair. It takes place only a year later, but in the post Waterloo world their circumstances and goals have changed.

What are some favorite books of yours that capture specific moments in time and what detials evoke the time period?

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