originally published on March 23, 2009
One of the perennial favorite topics around AAR is the lack of historical accuracy in today’s historical romances.
Still, there is what AAR readers want and then what the rest of the reading world wants – at least according to some publishers. I’m hearing from certain writer friends who are, in turn, hearing it from their publishers that readers these days don’t especially care about historical accuracy – not to mention, of course, the belief that readers only want books set in 19th century England.
We are told over and over – and over and over again – that AAR readers aren’t the norm. And, perhaps, that’s true. But I for one find it impossible to escape into a historical romance (key word these days is escape) that is so broad-brushed it feels as if it could take place at any time.
Still, while I’m hardly the Regency police, there is one definite accuracy bug up my ass: I deplore the fact that some of the newer authors these days don’t seem to make any effort to make their dialogue feel even remotely authentic.
One “nasty kids” or “her ladyship felt a bit down” and I am mentally totally out of the story. Totally.
But, on the other hand, since the majority of my knowledge of the society and mores of 19th century England was largely gleaned from fiction, I’m simply not going to catch some of the errors that those who are more schooled in the period do. If the dances and underwear aren’t accurately depicted in an historical novel, you won’t know it from me.
But – and this is a major but – I think I did learn a lot from those historical romances I grew up on.
When I was working my way through the Georgette canon and branching out into books by Laura London, Anne Stuart, Marion Chesney, and Joan Wolfe, I got a great feel for the Regency, including the true characters of the period – characters most readers who’ve only been reading romance for the past 10 years or so might never have met.
And I think that’s sad.
When was the last time Beau Brummell was featured in a book? His influence on society was enormous and his end tragic, the stuff of which great drama is made. With his ironic wit and outsized personality, he was an amusing foil for many a hero in the books I used to love. (And, incidentally, heroes always followed the Beau’s dictates for gentleman’s dress and favored black and white for evening and simple attire during the day.)
Maria Fitzherbert was a Catholic widow who actually married the younger Prince Regent in a civil ceremony, though the marriage was never recognized under English law. I learned about Maria’s sad tale in a novel – and, sadly I can’t remember who the author was – in which the heroine was a friend of the young widow.
And what about the Prince Regent himself? Handsome in his younger years, corpulent in the latter, society revolved around him and his every whim, yet I can’t recall the last time I came across a book in which something as simple as a ball or reception at Carlton House was a part of the plot.
In those books I remember so fondly, the names of the Gunning sisters were invoked by every hopeful Mama scheming to marry her daughter into the highest levels of society. In the late 18th century, the two actresses actually married into the nobility – a duke, no less, followed by a marquess for Elizabeth Gunning pictured here. (I learned when checking out the accuracy of my memories on Wikipedia that her first husband, the Duke of Hamilton, wished to marry her the first evening they met. Clearly, she did something very, very well!)
Right along with the the warm lemonade served at Almack’s go the tales of Lady Jersey who, along with her fellow patronesses, could make or break any young woman desiring to make her mark in the ton. The undisputed queen of society, heroes arriving after the strict 11 pm cut off for admittance into Almack’s hallowed rooms were required to cajole Lady Sarah who, of course, was always suitably charmed. (And now that I think about it, is Almack’s also making fewer and fewer appearances in historical romance novels? Do they think modern readers know nothing about the period?)
And then there’s Lord Byron. His affair with Lady Caroline Lamb occured in 1812 and her breakdown in full view of society was the stuff of which legendary scandals are made. But, once again, I simply can’t recall the last time I read a book even featuring a heroine reading Lord Byron’s poetry.
To me, including, even in the lightest possible way, these real people helped me imagine the place and time in which the book was set as someplace different from my ordinary world. Sadly, today history is so broad-brushed and modern dialogue so prevalent in far too many books that it often doesn’t even feel as if I’m reading a historical romance.
And without the “historical” part, it all starts to seem pretty bland to me.