History from a Different Angle (LLB)
We’ve had countless discussions here at AAR about historical inaccuracies and anachronisms in historical romances. Rather than doing that again, why not instead focus solely on the positive? Why not celebrate all the history we’ve correctly learned by reading romance novels, whether directly or indirectly?
I traveled extensively growing up. Every summer (and sometimes during winter break) we would take a family vacation. The first year it was New York and Washington, D.C. The next year it was Hawaii, and thereafter it was Canada, Europe, the Far East, and the Middle East. Although I remember every trip in good detail (and those trip journals surely helped!), loved history even then and so appreciated every destination, I was lacking context for many of those trips. Which is perhaps why my month in Greece after the 9th grade (my English teacher took 20 kids every summer) meant more to me than the others. We had read The Odyssey during the year and during that month, on beaches and ruins of temples, Mr. Hansen read Zorba the Greek aloud to us. Seeing places we’d read about and studied made it more real for me.
Which is why I approached my big trip in 2001 to the UK with such enthusiasm. Although my husband and I had taken some big vacations over the years, they were of the “relaxing” variety – on distant or foreign beaches and cruise ships where the site-seeing highlight was a trip to the Dole Pineapple factory (gotta love those “water” faucets filled with pineapple juice). Terrific and fun to be sure, but after having read literally hundreds of historical romances set in the UK, and after having worked on the Castle of the Week feature for seven years, seeing places I’d read about had me giddy with excitement.
My husband left the planning entirely up to me since he’d never been on such a trip, and I worked with a travel agent planning an extensive itinerary. We worked in several Castles of the Week in Wales to visit, and arranged to stay at historical manor houses throughout much of our visit. You can imagine how excited I was to learn that while in Bath, we’d be staying at a small hotel designed by the architect of the Royal Crescent. Although I’d been to Bath twice before, I hadn’t read about it in dozens and dozens (at least) of historical romances, and so that context wasn’t really there. But having read about it in some favorite books, having read scenes set in Bath’s Assembly Hall or Pump Room (even though it’s a different Pump Room now), being there was different this time. What romance reader could visit the Assembly Hall and not envision wealthy men and women taking turns about the room?
As I mentioned in my trip diary at the time, what really tickled me were our visits to various museums featuring a look at history through the clothing of the time. Before I read romance novels, I wouldn’t have known a Regency gown from a Victorian gown from a Restoration gown. In addition to being able to point to a tableau and guess the era, When our guides discussed the social history as revealed through the clothing, I knew it! How cool is that for someone who never formally studied history?
And when we got to Wales and visited so many of the Medieval castles I’d learned about over the years, I was nearly apoplectic with delight! Not only was I thrilled to see in person what I’d only seen in one-dimensional photos, but having read about garderobes and butteries and murder holes made my experience different than my husband’s, who learned it all for the first time.
It’s true that there are errors in many – perhaps most – historical romances. Everyone who reads them more or less becomes aware of that at some point. But for the naysayers out there, remember this: many of us with a desire to learn history come to that desire from reading romance novels. Being more or less a lazy sort, I decided to learn history by soliciting articles about it for our History & Travel section. For instance, after having read hundreds of romances set in England while Napoleon ruled France and fought with much of Europe, I was still confused about his reign and his wars. And so I put out a call for an article. It took two years for us to get that article, but get it we did, and now I understand the background and progression of the Napoleonic Wars.
Some of what I’ve learned and/or been inspired to learn about has given me context to further expand my knowledge. Restoration, Georgian, and Regency-era furniture, when discussed on the English version of the Antiques Roadshow, takes on different dimensions when in my mind’s eye I’m able to envision that furniture in an historical scene. I better understand documentaries on Medieval knights or mentions of the Knights Templar as a result of having read about them in romance novels. Even re-reading favorite Austen novels is a richer experience after having read historical romance. That may be heresy, but it’s true.
So my questions are these:
- What have you learned from reading historical romances?
- Have you been inspired to learn more on your own after having read historical romances?
- Which books taught and/or inspired you?
Let’s move on now to a segment from AAR Reviewer Noelle Leslie de la Cruz, a Philippine native who lived in the US for a while before moving back to the Philippines. She brings a perspective that I’ve heard echoed elsewhere by Far Eastern romance readers. Though Americans may find it unsettling to read her comments, I think they are important enough to be shared regardless of my own opinion on the subject, particularly as they relate to a specific book by one of Noelle’s favorite authors.
When National Issues Affect Your Romance Reading –
A Brockmann Fan Reads about her Terror-Filled Country (Noelle Leslie de la Cruz)
I’ve always adored Suzanne Brockmann’s Navy SEALS – Team Sixteen and the Troubleshooters’ Squad – mostly for their larger-than-life gallantry and clear-cut sense of right and wrong. Whenever I finish a Navy SEAL book, I sigh a little with the secure feeling that there are still (gorgeous, sexy) heroes in this day and age. Surely Brockmann’s characters must have been based on observations of or stories about actual SEALS, even just a tiny bit? The fantasy, however, exploded when I read a brief mention of a Philippine terror group in Brockmann’s Into the Night.
Living in Manila, I am daily confronted with mixed views about how our predominantly Catholic government is handling the Muslim rebellion in the south. News of the planned joint US-Philippine military operations in the island of Jolo, which is intended to flush out the members of the al-Quaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group, has triggered an extremely volatile debate.
On one hand, there are some who welcome American intervention to put an end to the crisis once and for all. On the other hand, there are some (I count myself among this group) who believe that structural reform is the answer and not a foreign-assisted war. As history has repeatedly taught us, the latter can only breed more violence in the already-devastated southern Philippines.
The presence of the United States in the Philippines has long been considered controversial. After the Spanish-American War the US “won” the Philippines, along with Guam and Puerto Rico. After being invaded by the Japanese, U.S. forces re-took the islands and we became an independent nation in 1946. Even so, the US continued to maintain a large presence here because of our proximity to communist nations in Asia. I’m sure you all will remember the closure of the Subic Bay Naval Station in 1992 – many Americans didn’t realize until that time how very controversial the relationship between the two governments was for many Filipinos.
New controversy began to brew when, in the aftermath of September 11, the US sent military advisors to the Philippines in order to help the government root out Muslim extremists. Although we aren’t the only island nation to support the US, the percentage of Muslims in my country is far larger than that in, say, Japan (at 14% compared to 1%). As a result of our support many Filipinos believe we’ve become a pariah in the Asian community. Indeed, some believe our president’s authorization of these military advisors directly violates our Constitution. As for me personally, I do not condone terrorism, which is wrong under all circumstances. But we’ve had enough violence in our Muslim provinces that America’s intervention may exacerbate the problem.
So it is against this backdrop that I share my personal feelings about the current situation, addressed in Brockmann’s book. I’ve become very ambivalent about America. Even though I’m a Christian, I feel that an attack on a Filipino Muslim – rebel or civilian – by an American soldier is still an attack on a Filipino. This is why I felt uneasy when Lt. (jg) Mike Muldoon, referring to Abu Sayyaf fighters, tells Joan, “Targets are eliminated and terrorists are targets.”
I realize that Brockmann’s books are naturally written from an American perspective, and you may wonder why a Filipino is reading them. English is a predominant second language here and is even the medium of instruction in schools, so if you walk into a bookstore in Manila you can expect to find an extensive collection of popular fiction by American authors. Again because of our colonial past, Manila-based Filipinos are among the most westernized in Asia; a rule of the thumb is that every Filipino in the Philippines is bound to have a relative living in the States. We’ve imbibed American culture to such an extent that only the most fervent nationalists can imagine that the US can do wrong. However, reading Brockmann’s latest book, I am suddenly reminded of the vast political gulf between her reality and mine. I still respect and admire this author, and will most likely continue reading her (how can I miss Alyssa and Sam’s long-awaited HEA?). But I may never look at a Navy SEAL the same way again.
I know there is nothing personal against any country or people that is intended in Brockmann’s books, which is why I think I will still enjoy them despite maybe occasionally cringing when the Philippines is mentioned. But I do think that she will be enriched as a writer if she will continue to present and tackle the gray areas in relation to ethnic and cultural issues. For example, I haven’t finished Into the Night yet, but I recall a sensitive Muslim character mentioned in Rachel’s review of this book.
It’s not often that world geopolitics intersects with romance novels, but given that the Internet has allowed us to create a back-fence community spanning the globe, hearing a non-US perspective is interesting, to say the least.
We’re going to return to the topic of history now, with a segment written by Mark Pottenger. Mark is well known to our readership as being a particular fan of comedic romance. Indeed, some years ago he wrote an ATBF segment for us on that subject. This time, though, he writes about historical accuracy from his point of view. I think you’ll find it quite thorough and you may also recognize yourself in some of his comments.
Accuracy is in the Mind of the Beholder (Mark Pottenger)
Accuracy comes up in many discussions of romance novels books. This is an attempt to clarify what might be included under that topic heading.
Ill start with a (Random House Websters Unabridged) dictionary definition:
Accuracy: the condition or quality of being true, correct, or exact; freedom from error or defect; precision or exactness; correctness.
Fiction is imaginative, imagined, invented or made-up stories. Look at the legal disclaimer on the copyright page of almost any recently published book. Even real people and places are used fictionally. Given those basics, what is accuracy in fiction? I think it is limited to freedom from error or defect and correctness. My take on correctness in the context of fiction is successfully conveying the feeling of the chosen milieu. If a story feels right for the declared setting, it is correct fiction.
Authors get a lot of criticism for the simple reason that no story can please all readers. Each readers unique life experiences affect how each story is perceived. One readers show-stopper is another readers I didnt notice that. Many readers who catch errors because of their own experiences dont stop to think how specialized their own knowledge is and that the author may not shine in that specialization.
If an author of a historical story uses inventions or discoveries or language from times generations after the setting of the story, it will break the flow of reading and suspension of disbelief for some readers and pass completely unnoticed by other readers. “Neanderthal” [1860-65] and “genetics”  are words I recall tripping over in Regencies. Language from modern psychology in stories set before the late 1800s (or well into the 1900s for some terminology) falls into this category.
If an author of a contemporary story uses inappropriate regional language or dialect or generation-inappropriate language or terminology, it will bother some readers and pass completely unnoticed by other readers. Americanisms in dialogue between characters in the UK are an example of this. I rarely notice this sort of problem.
If an author uses poor grammar or malapropisms, it will bother some readers and pass completely unnoticed by other readers. I call a lot of wrong word errors mindos, a word formed by analogy from typos. I often notice these problems.
If an author uses some words and phrases a lot, some readers will be bothered and some readers wont notice or wont care. Repetition has to be pretty extreme to bother me. This is in a gray area, since repetition can be a deliberate stylistic choice. An example Ive seen mentioned on a discussion list is one authors frequent use of the word maiden in Regencies.
Some readers notice rapid changes in point of view, some notice excessive use of short sentences, some notice mistakes in geography, some notice misuse of French, German, Spanish, or other languages, etc. My point, and the reason Ive said authors face a no-win situation, is that each reader brings a unique set of life experiences and knowledge to their reading of the book and it is probably almost impossible for a single author to know enough to write a book that will be free of flaws for all readers. I sometimes wince or cringe at bloopers I see in books, but I also enjoy most books despite that. I know that writing fiction is not one of my skills and admire and appreciate the work of authors I read. I just wish publishers respected authors and readers enough to do a better job of eliminating (and not introducing) errors. Ive read enough comments from authors to know that some errors in published books are introduced during the publishing process, not just missed in publishing the authors original text.
A consequence of the above view of errors is that for the reader who does not notice the errors in a book, that book is error-free. The same printing of the same book can be riddled with errors in the view of one reader and perfectly fine in the view of another reader.
Allergic reactions or special sensitivities are a physical analogy for readers reactions to different details in books. Some people physically react strongly to dust, some to pollen, some to certain foods, etc. Other people are much less bothered by the same things. It would not be unreasonable to make a list of story features that different people are bothered by and let an individual reader define an (in-)accuracy allergy profile based on which features bother them.
An important point is that a single author (or a collaboration or an author plus an editor and a copy-editor) cannot know as much about a time period or geographic area or language as thousands or millions of readers. Once a book is published, it is subject to a level of examination by the group mind (readers collectively) that simply cannot be achieved prior to publication. In the software industry there is a step before final publication called beta testing – releasing a version of a program to selected users who are willing to put up with flaws for the chance to use the software sooner. Even with beta testing, many programs still contain bugs when published, but the number and severity of bugs is considerably reduced. Unless the publishing industry changes radically and institutes a system for beta testing books, errors in published books will remain inevitable.
Except in cases of extreme carelessness, the errors in most books are small problems for most readers. The Internet now allows readers who stumble over those problems to bring them to the attention of other readers who might not have noticed them, thus lowering the perceived quality of the discussed books for the other readers. This might be giving a false impression that book quality has declined or that readers are more critical than in the past. I know the impression of a decline in quality isnt always going to be false. I still recall seeing a distressing number of new typos in the recent (2000) reprinting of several Heyer titles. Still, it would be interesting to see how many flaws a large group of readers might report on reading a book published in 1980 or 1960. I noticed quite a few typos in a recent rereading of a 1965 book.
A group of readers will always spot more of all kinds of errors than any single reader. Some readers will notice simple typos, some will notice wrong words, some will notice poor grammar, some will notice punctuation problems, some will notice anachronistic language, some will notice inappropriate dialects, some will notice poor translations, some will notice geographical errors, some will notice military errors, some will notice legal errors, some will notice costume errors, some will notice errors in titles and forms of address, some will notice historical errors, some will notice premature psychobabble, some will notice errors in science, some will notice anachronisms in technology, etc. Just as with the full reading public, each added reader of a manuscript adds one more special perspective.
I would be very surprised if any print publisher starts using large numbers of early readers, but I think it could be done in electronic publishing. A version 1 text could be available at a lower cost than a cleaned up version 2 text.
For many years I listened to a radio program about science fiction and fantasy called Hour 25. They spoke of their audience as a group mind and expected that someone listening would know an answer to almost any question asked on the air. I even called in some of the answers over the years. I see no reason that publishing in this electronic age should not take similar advantage of the collective knowledge of readers. I think that if the change from books printed on paper to books distributed electronically happens as many people expect, this paradigm shift will be a great opportunity for publishers to improve accuracy to improve customer satisfaction. A two-phase release of texts with a built-in feedback mechanism to report errors will give whatever publisher does it first a huge boost with many readers.
Erroneous Errors: What we Know that Isn’t So
Some errors that readers complain about arent errors. Sometimes a reader objects to something in a book due to false knowledge or mistaken memory. In cases like this, the book is okay but the reader thinks it is wrong. When the point is simple, a little research will show who is right. For more obscure problems, this kind of objection can lead to dueling authorities.
Things that are correct but feel wrong are a borderline area. Some names and words feel very modern to readers even though they are in fact very old. Even though things like this are not in fact errors, many authors try to avoid them because of the reader reactions. A compromise answer is to include footnotes.
Misunderstandings are another borderline area. If the text is unclear enough that a lot of readers read something other than what the author intended, I view that as an error on the part of the author. If just a few people misunderstand, it is less clearly a problem.
I put “non-fiction” in quotes because it can be argued that there is no such thing as history that is non-fiction. The viewpoint and slant of the author affects all writing, even when the intent is to tell the truth as far as the author knows it. The only form of history that would fully qualify as non-fiction is a chronicle or list of events, and even that can be subject to argument from people who believe certain events did not happen or happened at a different place or time than listed in the chronicle.
Primary sources are participants in or eyewitnesses of or physical traces of described events. Secondary sources are removed in space and/or time from described events. Some people classify works that synthesize data from primary sources as secondary sources and some classify them as tertiary sources. Web sites are often tertiary or quaternary sources. Each layer of removal from actual events adds another chance for transcription errors, lost data and biased interpretation due to cultural differences, but even primary sources have unavoidable personal biases. Anyone exposed to modern psychology or criminology is probably aware how unreliable eyewitnesses are. Most of us, including authors, learn our history from secondary, tertiary or more distant sources, so there is always a good chance that a certain percentage of what we learn just wasnt so.
Beyond the unavoidable unintentional errors, some histories are written with deliberate intent to distort because the author has an axe to grind. Anyone who reads such a book thinking it is non-fiction is seriously misled.
Georgette Heyer is an example of a fiction author who did a huge amount of research using primary sources such as diaries and letters.
“Historical” Fiction & “Historical Accuracy”
I think authors and publishers need to make clear their intent. Here is a list of possible degrees of historical accuracy in fiction in order of increasing divergence from historical facts.
- Hidden history: history that could have happened but we dont know about it.
- Altered history: history as we know it with minor alterations described in notes.
- Accepted history: history as accepted in popular culture despite known differences from history according to scholars, such as the fictional Regency established by Georgette Heyer, the American Old West of dime novels and other fiction, and other settings where everyone knows things that werent so. (Judging the accuracy of Regencies based on knowledge of real history could lead you to assume that features Heyer introduced – both deliberate copy traps and reflections of her own milieu – are errors.)
- Alternate history: history that definitely contradicts history as we know it.
- Mythic history: historical contexts used to tell a myth or historical contexts treated as myths rather than as hard facts.
- Alternate reality: stories that contradict in some way the currently accepted world-view of modern materialistic science. This does not say that the reality they depict is in fact unreal or untrue, just that it is outside the limits of the current materialistic paradigm. Alternate reality can include aliens among us, angels, auras, banshees, brownies, channeling, cryptozoology (bigfoot, Nessie, yeti, etc.), curses, demons, djinns, dowsing, elves, espers, faerie, fairy godmothers, gargoyles, geases/geises, genies, ghosts, giants, gnomes, gods, golems, gorgons, harpies, hunches, immortals, incubi, intuition, invisibility, invulnerability, leprechauns, lost civilizations, lost continents, magic, magicians, mediums, mermaids, monsters, other dimensions or planes of reality, out-of-body experiences, possession, postcognition, precognition, psionics, psychics, psychic vampires, psychokinesis, psychometry, reincarnation, séances, selkies, sorceresses, sorcerers, spells, spirits, succubi, talking animals, telekinesis, telempathy, telepathy, teleportation, time travel, transmigration, twin links, undead, vampires, visions, warlocks, werewolves, wishes, witches, wizards, wraiths, xenotelepathy, etc.
All of the above lists are for fiction in which the use of history is basically serious. Fiction with humorous intent can take some different tangents.
- Anachronistic history: deliberate/intentional use of anachronisms to create contrasts or incongruities.
- Hodgepodge history: deliberate mixing of eras, regions, cultures, etc. to create contrasts or incongruities. This is anachronistic history carried much farther. I have seen and heard of hodgepodge history more in movies than in books.
Note that any story with invented (non-historical) royal or noble characters is, at minimum, altered history. Invented countries are also at least altered history. On this scale, I would classify Garwoods historical books (which I love) as mythic history. Given advance knowledge of the authors intent, readers can then judge whether the author succeeded. Some readers comfort zones will include all eight listed variations and some readers will prefer only stories within the first degrees of separation from history.
Even though I have sometimes used the term horny historicals to describe some books, sensuality levels are on a separate axis of measurement independent of accuracy except to the degree that the behavior of the characters is implausible.
Superseded history is a special subset of alternate history. This is a story that was overtaken by events. A lot of fiction with future settings becomes alternate history as soon as the present reaches the date in which the story was set or dates in which background events for the story were set. At the time of writing, the story wasnt historical at all – it was set in a possible future. When that possible future does not come to pass, the story becomes superseded history. Even stories set in the far future can be superseded history if they describe events that did not happen in our past. A 1950s science fiction novel with Earths first manned spaceship to a habitable Venus in the early 1980s is an example of superseded history, as is a far-future science fiction series with a military alliance between the U.S. and the USSR in its history.
|In summary, we have the following list of levels of “historical accuracy,” which applies to both authorial intent and the basis on which a reader judges a story. Which of the following do you enjoy reading?|
To tie these terms to other labels that I have seen used, I think most costume dramas are either accepted history or mythic history, meaty historicals are hidden history, and wallpaper historicals are either accepted history or mythic history.
When the packaging of a book makes clear what approach a book takes, then a readers expectations will be reasonably congruent with reality. When a reader approaches a book expecting one level (such as accepted history) and the book is at another level (such as mythic history), you can get a disappointed or irritated reader. For this reason, I would encourage authors, publishers and reviewers to disclose the level of history of all historical fiction.
One complaint that Ive seen a number of times is that the historical romance genre is overloaded with members of the nobility. This is almost never an issue with a single book, but is a reaction to large numbers of books taken together. If one approaches historical fiction with the mindset that each book or series takes place in its own alternate or parallel universe this ceases to be an issue. Those hundreds of dukes arent all in the same England.
Read Your Bible
Another kind of accuracy complaint, currently more likely in the fantasy and science fiction genres, could also be an issue with some romances. When someone sets up a universe in which multiple people will write stories, the material (of whatever length) that defines the laws of physics or magic, the astrography, the geography, the histories, the races, the societies, the laws, the technologies, prominent characters, etc. can be described as the bible of that shared universe. Any story set in a shared universe that contradicts the bible is inaccurate even if the contradiction of the bible is valid in the universe we live in.
Expect versus Hope
Expect and hope are synonyms, but there is a shade of difference in meaning that I think is important when discussing reading. I always hope that the next book I read will be a wonderful reading experience, but I dont necessarily expect it. Expecting implies a degree of certainty that hoping does not imply. I think approaching the reading of a book with specific expectations leads to a lot more disappointment than approaching the reading with hopes. Just as the life experiences a reader brings to the reading of a book determine the nature of any complaints about accuracy, the attitudes the reader brings have a large effect on whether the reading experience will be disappointing or pleasing in the end. This is why a lot of publicity or hype can lead to disappointed readers if it leads them to approach a book with unreasonably high expectations.
Mark certainly took this discussion to a new level! I tried to identify my historical allergies, but because I don’t know as much about history as many other readers, and because I’m likely more willing than most to suspend disbelief, I couldn’t make a list. My general view on historical inaccuracy is that it will bother me only if I know it’s there. That may be a circular statement, but essentially it means that the error has to be quite egregious for me to know it’s there, or it must fall into a category on which I am knowledgeable. This can create a problem for authors because I am one of those quirky people whose brain is filled with trivia. When I was an undergrad, for instance, I got into a debate with my future husband, his brother and sister-in-law about the vegetable that Scarlett O’Hara pulls from the dirt, wipes off, and eats as she thinks about Tara and tomorrow. Though my copy of Gone With the Wind was some 1,500 miles away in my bedroom in Tarzana, California, I drove myself to the nearest library and photocopied the page in question and proved it was a radish and not a carrot. (When I know something, don’t mess with me! )
Time to Post to the Message Board
Here are the questions we’d like to have you consider this time:
What have you learned from reading historical romances?
Have you been inspired to learn more on your own after having read historical romances?
Which books taught and/or inspired you?
It’s true that world views differ depending where in the world you live, your religion, your government, and many other factors. Whether American, Malaysian, Filipino, French, Scottish, German, or South African, what are your thoughts about Noelle’s segment?
Have you read any romances that expressed either political or religious views that made you uncomfortable? Which books were they, how did you respond (and why), and what was the end result?
What are your particular historical allergies?
What do you make of Mark’s degrees of historical accuracy? Do you recognize and/or agree with them? If you were to choose some of your favorite historical romances and categorize them based on Mark’s categories, what would your list look like? Would there be titles for each category or would they be weighted at one end or the other?