Thursday, September 08, 2005

How real is real

I cheerfully admit I’m stealing this idea from Robin and after she saved me from doing a very rash thing.

I cut my romance teeth so to speak, on historical romance. I think most of us old time romance readers did. It’s only the ‘young uns’ that might not have started as avid fans of the genre. I see on message boards posters complaining about “wallpaper” historicals. Those books that are basically written in modern syntax are then set in historical times. If it’s too obvious like most everyone else, this can bother me somewhat too. Not as much as some, but I can be taken out of a story if I KNOW, the author hasn’t done any research.
But on the other hand, how much historical detail do we really want? Times, they were a different back then. The Georgian period, one of my favourite in romance, was notorious for lack of hygiene. People just didn’t bathe back then the way they do nowadays, especially among the lower classes. Even the upper classes were not that hygienic. I think, from what I’ve read, that wigs were a staple back then because they’re heads were covered with dirt and bugs and other assorted nasties. They wore a lot of face paint back then and really, how good could they have looked after a few hours in the hot ballrooms they floated around in. I expect they all smelled pretty rank too. Mennen speed stick deodorant for men and Arrid Extra Dry with fresh baby scent for women just hadn’t been invented yet. But who wants to read about smelly people – Blech. And one doesn’t even want to think too deeply about sex of the oral variety. Yuckers.
The idea of beauty has changed a great deal over the years. Even in these days, you look back at what was cool in the 80’s and it just isn’t that great by today’s standards. At the time I loved the long hair on guys, and I should admit this to my sisters who think I’m shallow ‘cause my main focus on hero’s was the length of his hair, but men’s hairstyles in the 80’s, now that I look back, were horrid. And even I – yes, I confess, used to wear blue and green eye shadow on occasion. Not as much as the Smart Bitches always laugh at in their delicious cover parodies, but I certainly don’t go for that look today. And who all remembers the long hair, parted in the middles so you can’t see the face Marsha Brady look. It’s laughable today. So imagine how truly unbeautiful the people of that era look today. I’ve seen portraits of the people of that day and let’s face it, they just were not that attractive. And the hairstyles back then? Not nice. There was no mousse back then and they used *ugh* greasy stuff. And what about the mutton chop sideburns for men in later times. Does anyone find them attractive today? I don’t.
So when I’m reading a historical today, I use today’s standard of attractiveness in my mind. I don’t picture the hero/heroine in my mind the way the probably looked.
And teeth! We spend a fortune on teeth today, straightening, polishing, whitening, flossing and brushing. Today we have Listerine. In historical times, they didn’t have all that kind of dental care. They didn’t have dentists and orthodontists. I imagine tooth decay was pretty rampant back then. And bad breath. We still have morning breath – well with the exception of myself of course but I imagine most of the people suffered from all day breath back then.
So for those who apply rigid standards in their historicals accuracy, are they really being fair? When you really think about it, is it fair to diss a writer if she is not overly accurate when we (probably) ignore the uncomfortable realities of historicals?

12 comments:

Tara Marie said...

I see on message boards posters complaining about “wallpaper” historicals. Those books that are basically written in modern syntax are then set in historical times.

I think there can actually be a difference between "wallpaper" historicals and books written in a modern syntax.

For me a "wallpaper" historical doesn't necessarily include historical facts and details, but can still bring you to a period with the use of language and background details (clothing and societal mores, but doesn't include details about what is actually going on historically at the time.)

I think the people who complain about missing details aren't really looking for historical detail in personal hygiene (there is a huge yuck factor there,) but rather a feeling of historical accuracy in language (not a modern syntax) and if an author includes historical facts that they get the facts correct.

OMG, was I long winded enought--LOL, great topic Kristie.

Tara

Angela James said...

Jay and I actually chatted briefly about how shallow we are today ;) Neither one of us reads much for historical accuracy. We just want to be entertained.

Every reader reads for something different. So there are historicals that I love that might drive someone else absolutly apeshit with the "wrongness". I don't care. If the story speaks to me, takes me away for a few hours and doesn't cause me to throw the book against the nearest wall, then it's all good ;)

McVane said...

I think the people who complain about missing details aren't really looking for historical detail in personal hygiene (there is a huge yuck factor there,) but rather a feeling of historical accuracy in language (not a modern syntax) and if an author includes historical facts that they get the facts correct.

Thank you, Tara.

Avid Reader said...

I'd just like to add to the commentary that I prefer historical facts to be accurate and yes, I said it, still be entertaining. Diana Norman, Roberta Gellis, Sharon Kay Penman and Elizabeth Chadwick are just are just a few who get it right and are absolutely wonderful. Huge fan of Laura Kinsale too and find no fault with her work, ever. That last part said in partially in jest.

Keishon

Robin said...

I know this topic has kind of gravitated toward the hygiene thing, but really, it's applicable to other areas, as well, IMO. I'm thinking, for example, of Danelle Harmon's book "The Defiant One," in which the heroine is a 19th century animal activist. I don't know all the ways in which her attitudes, work, behaviors, etc. were historically accurate or not, but I was generally okay with how things went down in that book, even though I suspect a lot of stuff related to her was modernized (not in my top pick of Romances, but entertaining, nonetheless). That book was interesting to me because while the language was pretty modern, there still seemed to be a strong flavor of the past to me. I actually didn't think of it as an historical Romance, if that makes any sense.

In some cases, of course, we just don't know enough to judge accuracy, and in others, we tend to judge accuracy from one historical Romance to another. I, for example, don't know enough about Regency England to know whether a nobleman wore a wedding ring, but I do know that Brenda Joyce's The Conqueror was riddled with historical inaccuracies (and rapes) that made me hate that book with a passion. It's really hard for me to read colonial American Romances or Native American-related ones, because, well, I know too much to deal with some of the historical crimes perpetuated in some of those books. But an animal activist heroine in "The Defiant One"? If I knew more would I be thrilled or pissed? I don't know, but I do feel that different people, with different levels and areas of historical knowledge, might have different ideas of what constitutes historical accuracy. And that sometimes we're willing to sacrifice in some areas and not in others. What I found interesting was that this discussion was started on AAR because of the phrase "shut up," which apparently WAS used in the early to mid 19th century in much the same way we use it today, even though it sounded very modern to some readers. As someone who has always insisted on more historical accuracy, I'm becoming nore and more aware of how much more I need to learn to judge such things, and how many ways in which I may not want historical accuracy in Romance.

Avid Reader said...

I'm becoming nore and more aware of how much more I need to learn to judge such things, and how many ways in which I may not want historical accuracy in Romance.

I know with the Diana Norman books, I always go look for more information on the history she has made significant to her story. Those facts must be right. However, in Romance, there's a limit I think to how much accuracy is needed. Most authors will take liberties with history and note it, while others make glaring mistakes on the little things, that could easily have been looked up. If the author has created a time period that is a backdrop only, should accuracy matter? If the author has created a time period that is central and an integral part of the story, should it be accurate? There are authors for both types of questions. I'd put Garwood as an example of an author who has stated that she didn't care how her characters sounded in her historical novels, she wrote Romance. Period. OTOH, Roberta Gellis wrote historical romance and took the time to research the details and provided a nice romance in her story as well.

Also, like Robin stated, some things in historical romance novels are harder to judge in accuracy. I know which authors write with accuracy and which authors just want to tell a good story. All in all, as I've said before, I prefer accuracy in books on events, historical markers, historical places, real historical people, titles, etc, and I know which authors to go to for that. Ultimately, as readers, the author's job is to tell a story that keeps us entertained.

Sorry to be so long-winded. I'm moving on. Good discussion Robin. BTW, I haven't read the thread at AAR.

Keishon

Robin said...

"Most authors will take liberties with history and note it, while others make glaring mistakes on the little things, that could easily have been looked up."

I like the notes -- in fact, one of my greatest highs when reading Susan Johnson's old historicals was the footnotes. I mean, YAYAYAYAYAY! I actually don't like most wallpaper historicals, since I tend to see history as a character all the time. Everyone makes some mistakes -- even historians. But I definitely want to feel that an author who has chosen a certain historical setting respects the history enough to want authenticity in her/his reproduction. Even authors who want to subvert certain historical facts or characteristics need to know what they're turning on end.

Of course there are things I don't want to read about in a Romance. Most compelling to me, though, are those authors, like Judith Ivory, who can characterize some of the unsavory things from the past (I'm thinking about Coco's tooth from Sleeping Beauty) and make them appealing to me.

I'm totally with you, Keishon, in following up certain things in an historical novel -- it's one of the fun things for me about reading through different historical periods and places. My point in the AAR discussion was that I think those of us who demand historical accuracy play with a sort of double standard in that arena in terms of what each of us views as accurate. I really do believe that, but I also think it's inevitable. Mostly it's pushed me to be a more careful student of history myself.

Sandra Schwab said...

Hi Kristie (and everybody else), I've just stumbled across your blog and this post, and hope you don't mind if I butt in here. :)

Historical accuracy. I can tell you that is one thing that causes heated debates on author loops! *G* While I'm really all for getting the details right and personally LOVE the research (hmm, digging up gossip from the past!), an author needs to be aware, imo, that she never ever can present a 100% accurate picture of any given era. She is writing fiction, after all. The author's view is always colored by the social conventions of her own time and by her own experiences. (BTW, even history books present a in one way or other colored view of history!)

That said, I still take pains to research the background for my novels carefully. There are, however, particular limitations in romance as far as historical accuracy goes. You already mentioned personal hygiene. Now add to that charming things like syphilis, pock marks, a very high death rate among children, and uppercrust men who thought it was great sport to cuckhold their friends. No, we don't really want our romance heroes behave like a real man from his time would have done.

Now as to language: this one always makes me giggle because I just can't help imagining somebody trying to write a medieval romance in Middle English. Or at least have dialogues in Middle English. Or, because hey, we want to be historically correct!, dialogues in Norman French. *ggg* Somehow I can't imagine that a) any editor would buy something like that or b) that such a book would really sell well....

So, at best of times we can attempt to give our readers a feeling for the era we're writing about. Being rich in historical detail (and i don't just mean political events, but also the details of private life, which are, after all, part of history, too!) can deepen a story and heighten the pleasure for the reader. And that is, after all, our main goal: to please our readers. :O)

Robin said...

"Now as to language: this one always makes me giggle because I just can't help imagining somebody trying to write a medieval romance in Middle English. Or at least have dialogues in Middle English."

Have you read Laura Kinsale's For My Lady's Heart, Sandra? She does, in fact, present much of the dialogue in Middle English. Actually, it's a hybrid of Middle and modern English, but the ME is definitely there. As someone who had to learn to read both Middle and Old English (as well as Latin, French, German, and Spanish), I loved that aspect of her book! Not only did it put me right there, but I love the sounds of some of those words and felt that their flavor was necessary to express the unique terms of the relationships in the book.

As for your comments on historical accuracy, I am so glad to hear that authors talk about this issue, too. My favorite Romances are those that explore an entirely new historical moment in compelling and authentic terms, or those that take a well-worn historical period and show a different aspect of that time and its people. I have to tell you that my greatest worry where historical Romance is concerned is that authors actually rely on the history of other authors as their primary research, rather than doing their own.

Kristie (J) said...

Although I'm more of a skim reader - it does take a glaring error to pull me out of a story- I do much prefer those that have the rich historical detail to them. I appreciate so much more when I see an author has 'done her homework'.

Sandra Schwab said...

No, I haven't read the Kinsale novel yet. Something I'll obviously need to remedy. :) Thanks for the tip, Robin!

As for your comments on historical accuracy, I am so glad to hear that authors talk about this issue, too.

Yeah. That's the topic over which knives are drawn on a regular basis... *g*

Kristie, have you ever read something by Dorothy Dunnett? She wrote straight historical fiction, and the amount of research that must have gone into her novels is breathtaking. IMO, she was a truly wonderful writer.

Kristie said...

Sandra: I haven't read her yet but I defintely plan too. She constantly get's glowing raves for her Lymond Chronicles and I plan on reading her books in the near future.