Books to the Sky

historical accuracy and lack of same

Posted on: August 6, 2009

There has been some discussion in the romance blogs of late about historical accuracy in romance novels. This is one of those things I always took with a grain of salt. Mostly I read historicals about periods I don’t know much about, so that the details don’t bother me or pull me out of the story.

Romance novels also rather famously ignore things like historical hygiene. Because, as you know, before the 20th century, people didn’t bathe to often. EvilAuntiePeril further points out

The thing is, I’m perpetually intrigued by what is justified in historical romance novels on the grounds of historical “authenticity” (eg. rape, abuse, swordsticks, Fabio in a Viking helmet) and what is extracted on grounds that it would put off the sensitive reader (eg. slavery, blatant racism, poor oral health, body hair). It’s not the removal of all ick. It’s selective historical sanitisation – and it’s not only in ye olde Romancelande that this takes place.

She goes on to say that historical novels are often more reflective of the period in which they are written, and certainly out contemporary obsession with cleanliness and hygiene comes across in novels written today. There are justifications for not describing the dank, dirty conditions of the time periods being written in, too: lack of hygiene would have been normal for all of the characters, so there’s no need to draw attention to it, or romance is fantasy and talking about body odor ruins the illusion.

Candy at Smart Bitches takes it further, point out that cleanliness = good, and lack of hygiene is often shorthand in romance novels for villainy. “If somebody in a romance novel has rotting teeth or smells weird, they’re not just going to bad, they’re going to be naaaaaaasty, and the hero and heroine are going to be distinguished from this nastiness, whatever the actual state of physical hygiene happened to be in Ye Olden Dayes of Yore for gently-bred people.” Candy brings up other examples: weird food as an explanation for Otherness in foreign characters; fat as shorthand for emasculation or even villainy (male obesity especially, since romance writers treat overweight heroines with a softer touch; Candy cites several fat male characters who are either emasculated—one is impotent—or else clearly the Bad Guy).

In the latter case, this is fishy because I can think of several historical figures known as well for their corpulence as their sexual prowess. Candy says this is beside the point, and also reflective more of 2009 than 1809.

What’s happening here has more to do with how contemporary culture desexualizes overweight people, and how overwhelmingly, we associate masculinity with muscularity. I particularly find the leap from emasculation to evil especially interesting, because it’s a theme you see quite a bit in literature in general and romance novels in particular. Oftentimes, I think the villainization is achieved via feminization, because emasculation often brings with it an identification/association with effeminacy, and that almost always leads to villainization of a character. You see it not only with men who are portrayed as fat and sexually impotent and are coded as womanish, but with men who are more explicitly coded as womanish, such as bisexuals, homosexuals or transvestites.

So there’s some food for thought. Um. Probably it’s improper to make a food pun when discussing obesity, eh?

Then there’s the entirely different matter of romance plots that would never have happened. Lynne Connolly at The Good, the Bad, and the Unread lists some things that could not or never happened in the real world:

* A known, famous courtesan marrying a peer of the realm and them being accepted into society with open arms.
* Peers of the realm becoming pirates.
* Regency gentlemen drinking whisky or whiskey from a decanter on the sideboard. [whiskey was illegal until 1823 and not a common drunk until the 1840s]
* A medieval Scottish warrior brandishing his claymore. ["No claymores until the late 16th century."]
* A medieval Scottish warrior wearing a skirted kilt in his clan’s tartan. [No kilts until the 19th century.]

I agree with Connolly that when you come across a detail that you know not to be true (this is why I don’t read a lot of American historicals, because I would find all of these errors) it takes you right out of the story. She says, “It’s an insult to say “it’s only a romance, so it’s okay, I can write what I like and get away with it” or something else I’ve overheard, “They’ll never notice.” So what? The other person a writer should respect is herself and her art.” Trust me, readers notice. (Actually, The Phoenix takes place in a time period I’ve been studying lately, and I think the portrayal of New York in the 1890s was mostly spot on, if vague in places. Except for the LES, Sims never really specifies neighborhoods. I kind of wanted more detail, actually, though I suspect that if she’d gotten things wrong, I would have gotten pulled out of the story.)

So. Does historical inaccuracy in fiction bother you? Does it matter? Should Regency heroines bathe less often?

2 Responses to "historical accuracy and lack of same"

This is why I find the prospect of writing historical fiction so daunting. Major historical events are easy enough to find out, but the thought of understanding the clothes, the speech, things the kids did for fun, the… well, everything… boggles my mind.

And that’s why I write fantasy. Hooray making things up!

You know it really just depends. Some details while inaccurate I can stomach. Sometimes they are just so completely opposite of true they make me sick. One for-instance I can remember was the ‘House of Night’ Novels ( sure, what did I expect, but still…) insisted that Cleopatra betrayed Egypt for the love of a man. Considering she betrayed many men for the love of Egypt, I found it to be a disgusting change of events.

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