At the Back Fence #127Dabney2017-06-23T08:29:57-04:00
At the Back Fence Issue#127
November 1, 2001
We’ll be taking a further look at history and the romance novel this time around. We’ll also begin a discussion of a plot premise I’ve been noticing more and more of, both in the reviews I edit and in the romances I’m reading – the will stipulation. I had hoped to start discussions on “Buried Treasures and One-Hit Wonders” and “Desert Isle Keepers,” but ran out of space and time. We’ll take those on next time. For now, let’s get started.
History: Fox Paws or Not?
After having read the historical inaccuracies segment in the last At the Back Fence, YA SF/F author Sherwood Smith and medieval history expert Teresa Eckford wrote in. Both eventually provided segments for this follow-up, which I had mapped out pretty well in my mind until I discussed Smith’s piece with various members of AAR’s staff. Luckily a message was posted to the ATBF Message Board by author Diane Farr, and things came full circle because Smith’s segment grew not only out of the last ATBF, but Farr’s Regency Language Primer as well.
Diane Farr prepared an article for our Historical Cheat Sheet some time ago to help newbie Regency Romance readers get a feel for some of the language they encounter in reading traditional Regencies. Some of the terminology exists in historicals set in the regency period as well, most particularly the word “ton.” In her article, Farr answered the question “What is the ton?” with this answer: “What is the ton? Or the haut ton? The latter has survived (sort of) to the present day, translated from the French to the English, in our expression high-toned. The ton is a set of persons who are rich, well-born, and fashionable. In order to be a member of the ton, you must be all three.”
This is the definition most of us who read romances set in the regency period accept as correct. So then why did Sherwood Smith send me an email saying otherwise? I’ll get to that, but first more on history and romances in general.
I’m not ashamed to admit it – much of what I know about British history I learned from reading fiction and romance fiction. And what I didn’t learn from reading fiction came from articles for our Historical Cheat Sheet, which I admit I began so that I could learn history the easy way. I assumed that the history in romance novels was as accurate as the history I’d learned in historical fiction. That was apparently a mistake, and for several years now, even I – as a reader who is satisfied with history of the wallpaper variety – have been noticing errors in historical romances. Among the more common errors are those related to titles and last names in regency-set historicals, the overabundance of titles, anachronistic behavior and language, and, oddly enough, mistakes in the undergarments of the time, be it the medieval or regency period.
Some years ago, Anthony McGowen, who runs a business called Highland Moon, provided AAR with a series of articles on Scottish history. He and his wife have run their company since the middle of the 1980’s, and on weekends can be found all over the country at various Highland fairs and games. The first time I spoke with him on the phone, it was hard for me not to laugh out loud as this man with a strong Texas twang talked so very knowledgeably about Scottish history. At the time I was receiving a magazine called The Highlander, filled with very detailed information that only a person obsessed with their Scottish heritage would read (I read it because I guess I’m a wannabe).
Anthony and I began to communicate after he mentioned on what is now AARList that Arnette Lamb (who died in 1998) had named one of her villains after him. It seems she took umbrage at his impertinence when he asked why she featured a Highlander sheathing his dirk in his hose when, in fact, the dirk was about 18″ from blade tip to the top of the hilt and had a blade nearly a foot long. (What Highlanders really sheath in their hose is a knife called the “Sgian Dubh.”) After Anthony sent me his article on Scottish weapons, I leafed through many of my medieval romances set in Scotland and discovered many authors had Highlanders sheathing their dirks in their hose. Ouch!
And it was Anthony (and Susan Page’s) article on Scottish clothing that took one of my favorite medieval romances down a notch – Julie Garwood’sSaving Grace. In the book, the hero is torn between two clans and so his wife has to trade off the plaids she wears on alternating days. It becomes a running gag throughout the book when she always seems to be wearing the wrong plaid (she’s really trying to teach the clans tolerance for each other), and she eventually sews the two together. There’s lots to love about that book, but apparently not the bit about the clan plaids. There were no definable clan plaids until well after the battle of Culloden in 1745, during which the type of plant worn in the bonnet was the chief mode of identification.
Some of us are satisfied with an historical romance if the men are called lords and the women ladies, if the skirts are long and the breeches tight. Others require a bit more detail – there should be no women in an exclusive (and exclusively) men’s club at a time when women were not allowed or so many vacant cottages or hunting lodges in the countryside that every hero and heroine caught in the rain can literally trip over them to find a place for their first intimate contact. And there are still others who want their historically accurate heroines to bleed out onto their chemises rather than wearing rags during menstruation.
Because there are so many sources, research is only as good as the source. If, for instance, an author relies on the wrong source, she may end up with incorrect information in her romance. And, if she decides to write in the style of a famous author who took some liberties with history, those alterations to history can become entrenched as fact. And if that famous author is considered one of the founders of modern romance and was at times inventive with history, than we can end up with two sets of history.
Readers really do run the gamut when it comes to how much historical accuracy they require; it really depends how much knowledge they have of history at the start. Mary, for instance, writes:
“Even though I’m also ‘historically challenged,’ I think I would have noticed this ‘foxpaw’ (the White’s error) because it’s a fact that I associate with romances. Now that I realize that I soak up these little details, I would be upset to discover that an author had taught me inaccurate facts. Obviously fictional things like make believe islands are okay; if an author wants a major character to be royalty, she/he doesn’t have much choice but to create the royal homeland. But, it would be very embarrassing to publicly use a fact learned from a romance only to find out that it was not accurate.”
Published author Ella responded to Mary’s comments and wrote, “My historical romance was fairly heavy on historical details, and lots of people wrote me to tell me they enjoyed my book because they ‘learned something on every page.’ Obviously they were operating under the assumption that my history was accurate. I think authors can’t just assume readers are going to say, ‘Oh, well, it’s just a novel, you can’t believe everything you read.’ Readers do tend to assume what they read is true, even in fiction.”
What bothers more readers than individual errors – songs played on the pianoforte before they were composed, a peer of the realm being referred to incorrectly – are those that Sheryl refers to as “modern concepts shoved back” in time. Though she didn’t specify beyond “the concept of the rights of the individual pushed into a culture that never imagined such a thing,” my interpretation of her post is that she is referring to what bothers a lot of readers – heroines and heroes who are thoroughly modern in thought. Leaving the British Isles, for instance, romances set in the United States prior to the Civil War often gloss entirely over slavery or feature as many super-enlightened characters as there are vacant hunting lodges in rural England.
I found something Sheryl wrote on the message board to be very interesting in relation to Julie Garwood’s Saving Grace. Garwood is “fantasy-land” for Sheryl and the plaid error didn’t bother her because she doesn’t expect Garwood to be accurate. “Her books radiate fantasy and that’s fine, that’s where she’s at.” She is much more likely to be bothered by “the books that take themselves seriously” and then are historically inaccurate.
I’m not sure I agree with Sheryl about historical authors writing in a veritable fantasy-land. I expect the basics to be there in any historical romance and don’t want to learn something wrong when I read one. I may not learn a whole lot more, but at least nothing wrong.
Having introduced Sheryl’s “fantasy land” concept, now’s the time to segue into Sherwood Smith’s piece. Those of you who rely on Georgette Heyer as the be-all and end-all of all things Regency Romance related may be surprised to learn that, according to Smith, some of what Heyer wrote about was, in effect, her own version of history. If this sounds blasphemous to you, read on!
At her own site, author Smith has an article entitled Why I Can’t Read Most Fantasy Novels or Regency Romances (this is a jump link that will open a new window in your browser). In that article, she writes about creating worlds that are “internally consistent” and not “mere copies of the elements one likes best from another author’s work.” She added that earlier Regency Romance authors relied too much on Heyer’s “enormous success, didn’t often do the homework, and their books were replete with egregious errors.” She applauds more recent Regency Romance authors for their diligent research of “politics, social trappings, and geography of the 19th century,” but finds that not many of these authors get the “mindset of the 19th century right, or the language,” so that their characters “screw around like a bunch of nineties people in Regency garb.”
Sherwood Smith has plenty more to say, and here it is.
Georgette Heyer and the Regency Romance
The word “ton” does mean tone, and (Diane Farr’s) article correctly defines “haut tone” as high tone, but Regency people did not in fact refer to the upper classes as the “ton.” That is an error introduced by Georgette Heyer, by whose time it had come to mean just that. Heyer may or may not have known what she was doing, but “ton” specifically meant style, behavior, and attitude, and not a body of people, during Regency times. It wasn’t until the 1840s that we begin to see ‘ton’ referring to people and not to their behavior.
Which brings me to the dangers of relying too heavily on anyone, including Heyer, for research. What Heyer did is create a secondary universe. It is not actually true to the Regency period, as readers who are really familiar with the period become aware. The obvious divergence is in the political upheaval and economic miseries of the time, so obvious we can dismiss it.
How else? Well, first there is the matter of language. Heyer seems to have delighted in Pierce Egan’s slang, to the extent that she has most of her younger heroes using it – and some of her heroines. When you read period letters, diaries, essays as well as novels, you discover that not only did young women not use it, ever, even in letters to each other (the different language of men and women at the time is a subject to ponder) but young men of the upper classes did not employ it to the degree that she has them blithely slinging out to each other – and to young ladies.
Bringing me to the second divergence: the characters. Heyer’s heroes and heroines do not really behave like Regency people, but more like modern versions of Regency people. Heyer’s heroines are instantly readable to us because they are actually the prototypes of modern young women. That is, they seem less like actual Regency era young women, and much more like the aristocratic Bright Young Things of the twenties (dressing like men – and the men find it a turn-on – and using male slang, assuming a kind of cool independence – check out this interesting article on 20’s fashions and sexual identity – it’s a jump link) who were daring in limited ways, but still believed firmly in their grandmothers’ precepts about ladies and Blood Will Always Tell. From the perspective of our end of the century, unless one has done a great deal of reading in real period literature, those Heyer heroines seem like Regency heroines, in their meticulously researched clothing and bonnets, but they aren’t. To point up an easy proof: get a hold of Claire Claremont’s journal or letters. She was about the freest spirit of the Regency period, but she doesn’t even remotely talk or behave like a Heyer heroine, much less Mary Shelley, who was at heart a conservative, despite the way she was raised. Even Caro Lamb, who did love dressing up as a pageboy, but only to attract men. Read her writings, and you find that she was very much a woman of her time, including language.
What Heyer did is successful because she did do the research, immersing herself into literature of the period, and she meticulously thought out all the aspects, drawing knowledgeably on what made Jane Austen so popular for so many readers: the agreeable life of the gentry and aristocracy, the tranquil existence that never sees the horror and anguish and squalor of the manufacturing cities and the portside towns. Heyer created another England, one that doesn’t have the blood and horror and tears behind it and ahead of it that the real one did. When Heyer does permit the ugliness to enter a novel (Arabella) she wisely confines it to single instances that she can have her heroine solve, then she whisks the evidence out of the way so that the reader stays firmly in her secondary universe, and does not start thinking about the tragedies of the reality. Just so did Heyer fashion men and women who were interesting to her, partaking of both Regency and modern times. She is thus a successful subcreator, and her books are successful because of their consistency…but the pitfall is that writers who use Heyer as primary research are then copying her, and just like those flyers we’ve all seen that have been copied and recopied – where the letters distort and smudge – the writer who does not understand the period, and where Heyer diverged, writes in inconsistencies, and at best merely seems to be a mimic.
Thus for example, we get a popular writer of Regencies whose first scene depicts the heroine, the hero, and the hero’s mother or grandmother, I forget which. The thing is, the heroine is a governess, and the dowager is depicted as quite conservative. So when I saw the heroine exclaim “You’re bamming me!” I had to put the book down. This writer had obviously never read any period literature about the lives of governesses, and I don’t mean Anne Bronte’s riveting, and sometimes grim, Agnes Grey, but had not really read Austen’s Emma, which gives some brief but telling details about the lives of governesses even in benign families. That heroine would not have used male slang, the hero would have been shocked, and the dowager would have sent her packing if she’d given even period backchat.
I put the book back, unable to read further. I believe that Regency romances are a combination of romance and comedies of manners, a difficult and delicate blend. But they only work if the manners of the period are understood and reproduced. Otherwise you get a somewhat unfocused story of basically modern people in period clothing who sometimes use the language and sometimes not, but act like nothing quite of any period.
Perhaps this is long enough; I haven’t even started my hare on wit and the art of conversation, which too many modern writers do not at all understand.
When I shared Sherwood’s piece with members of AAR, you can well imagine the stir it created, along with a fair amount of disagreement, which confused me all the more and had me throwing up my arms in despair. In dispute first and foremost was the use of the word “ton,” which, according to the OED, was used as early as perhaps 1770 to refer to people. The discussion raged back and forth as to how reliable Heyer was; Robin pointed out that the amount of detail she researched was enormous while Shelley Dodge, our pollster, said that Heyer knowingly used contemporary references that she felt would make sense to her readers. She also, apparently made up some of her slang and hated it when some of her phrases showed up in other authors’ books.
And then Diane Farr posted the following on the ATBF Message Board, and things really did come full circle:
“For a modern American author, setting a book in Regency England is very much like setting it in Narnia or Peter Pan’s Neverland. We are choosing, for our setting, a place that (1) we have never visited, (2) we can never visit, and (3) someone else invented. In other words, we have no serious hope of getting it right. Not in any real sense of the word. That being said, we still have an obligation to follow the rules … in order to give our readers what they expect when they pick up our books, and not jar them out of the story with a heroine who photographs the scenery or accompanies her husband to White’s. Maybe the world we are writing about is not strictly accurate, but it should be consistent! Since we cannot set our tales in the real past, we must take the Regency world (or the world of the Old West, or the Civil War, or whatever historical setting we have chosen) that exists in the popular imagination, and set our stories there. That fictional place contains much that is historically accurate – gentlemen’s clubs without women, sketchbooks instead of cameras, etc. – mixed with what the Germans call ‘zeitgeist,’ the spirit or mindset of the times. At least as it is understood today, whether or not we are correct. For example, it has been theorized that Georgette Heyer’s Regency resembles the Victorian era in moral tone, with its strictures on female conduct and so forth. This may not be a realistic portrayal of the laxer, more ribald Regency attitudes. Never mind; Heyer’s Regency is now the Regency that exists in the popular imagination, and if your Regency miss behaves in any other way than the Heyer way, she won’t ring true. “In other words, when writing fiction, it seems to me that the writer must conform to fictional history when it deviates from real history, for good or ill, and trust that true scholars will not use fiction as a study guide.”
One of the responses to Diane’s post came from June, who agreed with much of what Diane had written. In one area, though, she disagreed. June wrote that it is possible for readers to “move beyond” the Regency presented by Heyer – but, do we want to? For what purpose? After reminding us that many realities of historic eras are not particularly romantic, she added that authors are likely “bound by what the current audience is willing to accept.”
June’s argument is based on the fact that Heyer wrote in a time more conservative than our own, making the Regency world conservative in tone. Because we live in a more liberal society today, she wrote, authors can write “wilder Regencies and see them sell well…It is the nature of the author’s own society that restricts how an author can successfully interpret an historical period…fiction is for today; it is not for those long in their graves and unable to read it. Even if it is about the past, it is for the present.”
It seems to me that June is essentially saying the same thing that Sheryl said, but she’s taken it a step farther. Their conclusions could cast a pall over the entire historical romance sub-genre if taken down the slippery slope – couldn’t? But then, perhaps not. Robin says that the fact that “Heyer’s view was narrow does not invalidate it for the particular characters that she wrote. Heyer was not making sweeping generalizations. She wrote specific stories about specific people. It is people who read her in lieu of reading history – or the contemporary literature of the period who do that.” And that resonates for those of us who read either traditional Regencies or historicals set in that period in this way. Some authors take her specific stories about specific people and generalize them so that all of the England we read about in historicals are filled with those introduced by Heyer. So my answer to June’s “for what purpose” question is this. While there are many authors of historical romance who do primary research and truly know the period but choose carefully how to present it, there are other authors who seem to simply slap a chemise and gown on a heroine and call her historical.
Let’s mull that over for a time, and to help you think it through, consider reader Maggie’s comments on the ATBF MB in response to this question, posed from the last ATBF: How much lenience do you lend an author when reading a romance?
“I have to admit I was a little confused and upset when I read this. I realize that outside of the industry, many do have the attitude that ‘It’s just a romance!’ and therefore does not require being well written, historically accurate or well plotted but I am surprised at hearing readers and people in the industry speaking this way. Maybe I am stupid or naive but I feel that many of the writers working in the romance field are capable of doing a good job and a different set of standards should not be available to them than what I would apply to any other genre writer. I do not expect it to be Pulitzer material any more than I would expect a romantic comedy film to be academy award material. That doesn’t mean I don’t want a well thought out, well-written, intelligent work that still manages to be entertaining. Many authors do meet this standard. I have a BA in English so it’s not like I’ve never been exposed to classic literature. I also read a wide variety of genres. I just don’t feel that romance is some kind of cheap, generic read that can’t be expected to me some standards. Am I alone in this? Does everyone else cut the writer some slack because ‘it’s just a romance?’ I’m sorry if I sound grouchy. I don’t mean to. I am just surprised to read these kinds of statements on a romance board.”
Maggie’s comments are answered, in part, by Teresa Eckford’s segment below, which considers another question posed in the last ATBF regarding what responsibility the reviewer has in pointing out historical inaccuracies.
Historical Accuracy: A Reviewer’s Perspective
I’ve been reading with interest the debate about historical accuracy and whether research blunders should be mentioned in reviews. As a reviewer, I would like to add my own two cents to the mix.
I review for The Historical Novel Society and the Ricardian Register, so all the books I read are historical in nature – either fiction or non-fiction. While reading I do note down inaccuracies, either real or perceived. If I have room in my review I will definitely mention the degree of historical accuracy employed by the author and again, if word count permits, even give examples.
Why? Well, as far as I’m concerned, if you’re going to write a book set in the past you should at least do enough research to be able to transport the reader into the past, without jerking them back with anachronisms, modern slang and just plain historical mistakes. No matter what the genre, it is easy enough to look up the basics and ask someone for help if it’s something more involved. I know, because I do it myself. Yes, sometimes it is a pain in the neck to have to dig for a tidbit of information, but that tidbit, when employed properly, can add so much to the setting and overall atmosphere of the book.
In one recent historical mystery I read, the author made some glaring historical errors that I did mention in my review. They were basics, as in having a king alive several months after he died (the context made it clear it wasn’t just a typo) and having the heroine sit in a rocking chair (my research indicates that rocking chairs did not exist in medieval England). The king’s death is well documented and the date can be found in any encyclopedia or survey history of England.
Now, before the protest letters start rolling in, please understand that the main reasons I felt compelled to point out these errors are as follows:
My readership. Members of the HNS (for whom this review was written), on the whole, expect high quality and attention to historical detail, so I would have been doing them a disservice had I not warned them about the teeth-gritting errors; and
The author. She teaches medieval history, so there really is no excuse for such sloppy research. However, on the whole I enjoyed the book. Maybe that’s why the mistakes jarred me even more, because they pulled me from a well plotted tale inhabited by some truly wonderful characters.
In another case, a historical romance novel I reviewed for the Ricardian Register, set in the reign of Richard III, received a rather negative review because the history in it was just awful (though the romance itself wasn’t bad). Many readers of the Register will read pretty much anything set during that period, so I felt compelled to let them know that if they chose to read this book, they’d have to ignore the history and concentrate only on the love story. I also wanted to get to it before other reviewers for the publication, who might have proven even more harsh. It was clear from the outset that the author had not taken just literary license, but had barely bothered to verify any details of the period. Historical personages were the wrong age and in one glaring case, their family relationships completely ignored (her hero was actually a cousin of the king), dead people were brought to life, and details of a major battle were changed. These are only a few of the things I found.
In all honesty, I could not write a review of this book and not mention these problems, many of which arose from the author having depended entirely on one secondary source for her research. I discovered, after flipping through that book, that the genealogical table therein had a mistake, hence the author mixing up the relationships between both historical and fictional characters. Yet had she checked even one other source (and she should have checked at least two or three more), she would have discovered that error and avoided at least one major inaccuracy. Yes, in any historical romance, the relationship between the hero and heroine is paramount, but I still feel that does not excuse a complete disregarded for the basics of history. Many issues from that particular era remain open to interpretation, yet there is no doubt, for example, that Richard III and his queen, Anne Neville were cousins.
Now, on to the question of Author Notes. Overall I appreciate them and being told if there has been any fiddling with history. Now, if an author moves a battle, changes the date of an event, or something similar, that annoys me. However, in many cases I appreciate learning about certain aspects of the history, especially if the author has used their literary license to speculate about something for which there is very little evidence. The further back you go in history, the less concrete and sparse is the documentation. In one of my favorite novels, Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman, the author writes the story of Joanna and Llewelyn as a love story. (Please note there is a spoiler in the next few sentences). Now, barring the sudden discovery of a journal or set of letters, we’ll never really know how they felt about each other, yet she bases her characterization of their relationship on a well-known fact. Though she betrayed him with another man, Llewelyn took her back after exiling her for a year. Why? Some will claim it was merely politics, as she was the half-sister of the English king. Yet it is equally plausible (especially as Henry was somewhat of a prude and likely not pleased by Joanna’s behavior) that Llewelyn took her back because he missed her and found that somehow, he could forgive her.
There is nothing inherently wrong with artistic license, as long as it is used judiciously. And I’d far prefer an author tell me about it than not. In another novel I read recently, based on a diary from the late eighteenth century, no note was included. That frustrated me as a reader and reviewer because some of the story events seemed rather far-fetched, yet we all know “truth is stranger than fiction”. However, without being told “yes, everything you read did happen” or “I speculated on this and this” I came away from the story with a feeling of dissatisfaction, despite having enjoyed much of the story. Again, this made the review harder to write and may have made me appear slightly harsh in some of my criticism.
So, for those of you who think that reviewers should ignore the small stuff, please understand that the reason this reviewer mentions such things is because she feels a huge responsibility towards her readers. Yes, it is nit-picking, but the publications for which I write expect me to give a balanced view that will help the readers decide if the book is something they are interested in reading. And that includes knowing whether or not the author has represented the historical period accurately.
There were so many interesting posts made on this topic that choosing which points to delve into in this follow-up was extremely difficult. We’ve barely scratched the surface here and yet I wanted to let Sherwood’s segment lead this new round of discussion. My plan is to archive online all the posts made on the subject of historical accuracy from the last ATBF column and this ATBF column shortly.
The Will Stipulation
We’ve recently posted several reviews on romances – both historical and contemporary – featuring will stipulations. In such romances, the hero and/or heroine must live together, work together, or marry one another to satisfy the terms of a will and presumably inherit the money, business, or real estate either or both need.
Will stipulations seem to me to be a sub-set of the larger Arranged Marriage Romance, which also includes marriages of convenience and mail order bride romances. As such, we would expect to read about them fairly often, but are they in fact used too often? At times there seem to be as many will stipulations as there are those abandoned cottages I keep mentioning in this column. And, in addition to possible over-exposure, are they reasonable in both historical and contemporary romance, or only reasonable in an historical setting?
I’ve been reading a lot of traditional Regency Romances of late, and many of the ones I’ve read feature the will stipulation. Given the importance of a line’s continuation and the inheritance laws at the time, they seem to fit quite nicely, but it does make one wonder why so many Regencies rely on the premise. Although I haven’t really read enough Regencies to know, there seem to be more will stipulations in them than there are in historicals set in the regency period. As for contemporaries featuring the will stipulation, this requires a substantial suspension of disbelief. Some readers can suspend their disbelief while others can’t. And for some, it’s a case by case basis.
As a general rule, contemporary romances featuring this premise seems contrived to me, but then again, so do contemporaries featuring mail order brides, and I happen to love Linda Howard’sDuncan’s Bride, so go figure. As for the contemporary marriage of convenience or arranged marriage, I can’t recall a single instance in which I was able to buy into the fantasy. But then again, a great many readers absolutely adore Susan Elizabeth Phillips’Nobody’s Baby But Mine.
I mentioned this subject on our Potpourri Message Board and to our review staff. I heard back from reader Jo-Ann, who wrote that she liked will stipulations. She’s not sure whether she has a high level of disbelief suspension or perhaps she hasn’t read as many romances with this premise as others do, but she likes the “forced aspect” of the premise, and watching the hero and heroine deal with “changes, each other, and the consequences of their togetherness.” She also likes the fact that with a will stipulation, neither the hero nor heroine is to blame for their being forced together. She too “lumps together” the will stipulation with the marriage of convenience because it’s all about “adjusting, overcoming conflict, adding drama, and changing priorities.” She specifically mentioned enjoying Courting Julia by Mary Balogh (traditional Regency) and Rachel Gibson’s Truly, Madly Yours (contemporary); she didn’t go for The Burning Point by Mary Jo Putney.
Interestingly enough, we’ve had discussion about the latter two of these three titles in the past. When Gibson’s book was published, we posted two reviews. Blythe adored the book and gave it a grade of B+. For Andrea, however, the book was disappointing, and a major reason for her C- grade was due to the will stipulation. To be fair, though, only one part of the will was to bring them together. The other part, and this is what ticked Andrea off, was that the hero and heroine couldn’t be intimate during the time they were forced together. Still, since it was part of the total will stipulation, I’d like to remind our readers what she wrote in her review: “The will was the first thing to be annoying. First of all, it’s becoming as big a cliche as the cowboy and the secret baby. I can’t even believe that a person would actually set up such an outlandish stunt in his will as Henry does here. Nick and Delaney have to avoid a sexual relationship or their inheritances are voided – and this is supposed to bring them together? I’d pick $3 million dollars over hormones any day.”
As for Putney’s first venture into the world of contemporary romance, the will stipulation was a too-pedestrian premise for an author of her caliber to use in a modern setting because it seemed anachronistic. Many readers, myself included, longed for her to return immediately to the historical arena right after we read it. In an odd way, I am reminded of this anachronistic feel whenever I read a so-called “burning” romance by an author who really isn’t a burning author – it just doesn’t fit. Yes, anachronism refers to time, not sensuality levels, but I hope my analogy makes sense.
We’ve come up with some titles that feature the will stipulation and will share them the next time around, when we have yours as well. Some of our staff thought about it a bit more; Colleen McMahon and Nora Armstrong developed some thoughts that I’d like to share with you. Colleen recently reviewed two contemporary romances (one a single title, the other a series title) featuring will stipulations. She enjoyed one of the books – Eileen Wilks’ Jacob’s Proposal. She did not enjoy Cheryl Ann Porter’s Mad About Maddie. Her philosophy on will stipulations is this: “Under most circumstances, an author gets one ‘bye’ from me – I’ll accept one outlandish plot device as long as everyone acts consistently from there. If you start piling it on after that, then my suspension of disbelief comes tumbling down. Wilks’ book worked for my under that rule of thumb; Mad About Maddie didn’t because it just got more and more stupid.” Colleen would like to work on a segment in the future called “Romance Novel World,” where “the entirety of the Plains and Western states would have to be nothing but ranches…other states that never seem to have romance novels set in them would cease to exist…There would be wall-to-wall tycoons and entrepreneurs….” I’m going to encourage Colleen to work on that piece; meanwhile, here’s what Nora had to say about will stipulations:
The Will Stipulation
First, as with everything, the author must be skilled. Shes got to craft a set of characters and present the reader with a situation that at least appears to be plausible. If you dont like the characters, then nothing about the book is going to please you, let alone an over-the-top premise – and lets face it, the notion of someone from beyond the grave trying to dictate the actions of the main characters is nothing if not over the top. Presenting the reader with a cast that appears either sheep-like or mulish when it comes to complying with a dead persons wishes is not easy; the writer has to give them strong, believable personalities and motivations for either going along with or chafing against will stipulations. This, of course, is no easy feat. In the hands of a weak writer its just not going to work. A skilled writer can make us believe anything, and shell populate her story with characters who act in character, with no gaps or inconsistencies in their actions and reactions. Of course, this is true for any kind of story, but in an outrageous situation it becomes even more crucial.
Second, this type of plot works better for me in a historical setting than a contemporary one. This ties into my first point, when it comes to plausibility. The past is removed from our everyday frame of reference, simply because it is the past, and we cant know what life was like then, especially when it comes to something as complicated and obscure as the law. For all we modern readers know, it was perfectly normal for a man to push his heirs around from beyond the grave. I just finished reading an older Carla Kelly (Libbys London Merchant) in which a secondary character is forbidden by the terms of his fathers will to offer so much as a penny to his sister-in-law and her family, on pain of being disinherited himself, because of a family dispute. I kept thinking, Come on, the old guys dead, for Petes sake – how will he know? In this day, the brother-in-law might find a lawyer clever enough to get around this stipulation, or to break it outright. But the average reader doesn’t know the ins and outs of nineteenth-century British law – we dont know what their chancery (probate) courts were like, except that they tended to draw things out to ridiculous lengths. Given our own societys propensity to go to court at the drop of a hat, wed be inclined to hire counsel and try to get out of any conditions that seemed onerous or awkward. Our modern frame of reference is, Where theres a will, theres a lawyer.
I spoke with a lawyer friend of mine about odd will stipulations. She explained that most people with sizable estates hire financial advisors and/or estate lawyers well before their demise to ensure their wishes are structured properly, so there are no legal grounds to contest arrangements once theyre dead. And, much to my surprise, she assured me that modern American courts are more likely than not to enforce weird stipulations and bequests: if you want to leave your millions to your cats and let your children starve, the probate judge is probably going to let that stand. The court will appoint a trustee for the kitties, and theyll never want for Meow Mix again, while your offspring will have to scramble for the next box of Hamburger Helper. And my friend told me that theoretically, theres nothing to stop someone from insisting, for example, that two people must live in the same town but have nothing to do with each other if they want a piece of the dead guys posthumous pie – and if the pie is especially large, if the stakes are high enough, the odds are theyll comply with the terms of the will.
Finally, will stipulations seem to work better in a humorous setting than in a non-humorous one. Historical or contemporary, if this scenario is played for laughs, or even a gentle smile, its going to go down easier for the reader. It doesnt matter whether the two parties detest each other, or whether they get along reasonably well – if the characters hands are forced, theres already a level of discomfort for them, and a skilled writer (see Point #1) will avoid making her readers feel even more uncomfortable. After all, she wants them to identify on some level with her characters, and to sympathize with them. The will-stipulation plot often strikes readers as so outlandish, so outrageous, that the writer needs to find it more palatable for them. What better way to do this than by making readers smile or laugh? Yet this calls for a very skilled writer to pull it off (see Point #1 again). If youre a really good writer, if you can make me smile or laugh at the machinations and maneuvers of your characters, if you set your story far enough in the past that I dont spend time trying to figure out how I would get out of such a fix – youve probably written a will-stipulation story I can enjoy immensely. Change just one of these ingredients, and it may be a recipe for a disappointing read.
Some Upcoming Topics
As I mentioned at the outset of this column, I had hoped to bring to you discussions on Desert Isle Keepers, Buried Treasures and One-Hit Wonders. Many on our review staff have been fortunate recently to read both some good debut novels and good novels by lesser-known authors who nonetheless seem to write a good one every time. This always heartens me, particularly when I’ve been in a romance reading rut or know that others have been in them. I look forward to our discussion on these topics next time.
Time to Post to the Message Board
Here are the questions we’d like to have you consider this time:
Where’d You Learn It? – The tolerance level for historical accuracy, in many instances, depends on where the reader has learned most of her history. Scholars are likely to demand more authenticity while others rely on fiction to learn about historical periods. Where on this continuum do you fit?
What’s the Best Historical Morsel You’ve Learned from a Romance? – Every reader I know has learned some great historical morsel from reading romance. What was the best morsel you learned, and where did you learn it? Conversely, what morsel did you think was terrific that you later learned was an historical fox paw?
The Georgette Heyer Regency Universe – For Sherwood Smith, the sensibility Georgette Heyer brought to her research, no matter how meticulously researched, was not authentic. For Diane Farr, Heyer’s universe, regardless of its often Victorian sensibility, is the basis for today’s Regency Romance because it is the Regency that exists in our popular imagination. How do you respond to both authors?
The Reviewer’s Perspective – Teresa Eckford argues persuasively that reviewers should share with readers the historical inaccuracies they discover. While making it clear that her readership is comprised of readers of historical fiction rather than historical romance fiction, do her arguments fit regardless?
The Will Stipulation – Do you enjoy the Arranged Marriage? Do you believe the Marriage of Convenience, Mail Order Bride, and Will Stipulation romance are all sub-sets of the Arranged Marriage? What makes these types of romances enjoyable?
Is the Will Stipulation Overdone? – Do you like the will stipulation premise regardless of the time setting of a romance, or do you prefer it in an historical setting? If you like both, share why – if not, share why as well. Is the will stipulation used not often enough, often enough, or too often?
Time to Name Names – Which romances featuring will stipulations worked for you, and why? Which ones felt contrived, fell flat, or seemed downright anachronistic?
In conjunction with Sherwood Smith, Teresa Eckford, and Nora Armstrong
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