At the Back Fence Issue #303

May 12, 2008

From the Desk of Robin Uncapher:

A Break from Romance

This year my brain needed a rest from romance.

Hard as I tried, no matter what I did, every book I picked up seemed like a dud. Most genre readers experience this, of course. It’s a slump. But this year drastic action seemed to be required.

The Regency period, or shall I say the romanceland Regency period, had worn out its welcome in my poor brain. That’s right. One more trip to the modiste, one more request for a waltz, one more forced wedding, and I was outa there. By February I realized that it was time that I read things that contained information I had not known before. I needed new characters, new settings, new intrigues. So what did I read? American history.

Two books in particular caught my imagination and you might want to consider them the next time you want or need a break from romance reading. For one thing, they will give you an interesting insight into what the British army was like as a foe. They will also tell you a lot about those 18th and early 19th century soldiers we all love to read about.

The books I read are 1776 by David McCullough and David Hacket Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing. If you want to read something different, and I mean really different, this might be just the ticket. And please, you romance editors out there – how ‘bout picking up these books yourselves? I for one would love to read a romance or two set in the American Revolution.

The biggest surprise in these books about the American Revolution was the refreshing characterization of George Washington, so different from that of early times. Finally, after two hundred years in the dustbin, George Washington has emerged as a flesh and blood person one with hopes, fears, and frustrations. All my life George Washington has appeared in book after book, stiff as a board. Biographies of Washington were long on narrative but short on dialogue. When I was in college I learned that Washington’s daughter burned most of her father’s letters and that this accounted for his dullness in history books. Contemporary descriptions of Washington were almost always admiring, but the man did not come to life on the page, probably because he was almost never quoted. The founding fathers – including Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton – all loved Washington, even when they were at each others throats, but it was hard for students of American history to understand why.

Thanks to recent scholarship and publication of letters and journals previously locked away in university libraries, the picture of Washington is becoming more vibrant. Both David McCullogh and David Hackett Fischer made use of this material and quoted Washington liberally. If you have always thought of George Washington as the perfect stalwart consider this passage from one of his letters in 1776:

“The reflection upon my situation and that of this army produces many an uneasy hour when all about me are wrapped in sleep, “ he writes to his friend, John Reed. And that is only the beginning. McCullough goes on to quote this sad letter at length, as Washington explains his lack of ammunition, lack of money, and overall lack of hope. And who could blame him? Washington’s soldiers were mostly farmers, some sailors, and planters who journeyed with him while worrying about the fate of their families at home. Unlike the British, the Americans did not know how to fight or even how to take care of themselves while on the move. Washington himself was disgusted with the New England militias he found camped in fields in 1775. So untrained were they that they had not even dug latrines, and had no idea that the terrible health of the American army was the result of this lack of sanitation.

In fact Washington, the southern gentleman, could not say enough disparaging things about New Englanders until, to everyone’s amazement, they drove the British out of Boston. After that feat, says David McCullough, Washington never said a negative thing about New Englanders again.

Who would think that this rabble could actually win a war against the best, most highly trained fighting force in the world?

The outcome of the American Revolution was anything but inevitable. 1776 describes how the British were driven from Boston to New York. It tells the story of the Battle of Long Island and Washington’s many retreats.

Washington’s Crossing, which also features many letters and diary entries from Washington, the British, and the Hessians, explains why the Christmas Battle of Trenton was such a departure from the previous battles of the war. Washington made his move at night in Trenton, in weather so bad the enemy assumed no one could make it over the Delaware River. Contrary to popular belief, the Hessian soldiers whom Washington surprised, had not been drinking. They had been expecting an attack and had gone to bed fully dressed. But they were surprised because of the weather, and were soundly defeated. Fischer quotes diary entries and letters from the Hessian commander at length. Washington’s generosity toward these defeated soldiers is touching. Many of them ended up settling in America, thanks to the fair treatment that they received.

Fischer debunks the generally held belief that the famous painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, is nothing but a romanticized dream of the Battle of Trenton. (Apparently many boats were full of water and the soldiers really did stand up!) Fischer is a great admirer of the British, though, and the details he provides on British army life are fascinating to this the romance reader. Far from being the unhappy group of ne’er-do- wells, that the Americans thought they were, British soldiers were generally patriotic yeomen from farming families. American soldiers, when captured, were exhorted by the British enlisted men for turning their backs on their king. British soldiers were also far cleaner than Americans and consequently were much healthier. They traveled with laundresses and changed their shirts at least once every 48 hours. Discipline was kept. Soldiers found guilty of rape were shot.

The American troops, who gave their all, often while desperately worried about families left at home, had short enlistment periods. Washington was constantly worried about the fact that his troops were about to leave. The most dramatic passage of the book, in my mind, is not the battle but the scene after the battle in which Washington thanks his troops and asks them for one more sacrifice. He begins his speech “Gentlemen,” and with that one phrase makes it clear that the America will be a different place from Europe, for as Fischer points out, no other military commander in the world would have addressed his troops with the word “gentlemen.” At that moment Washington changed the word from one signifying class to one signifying behavior. It was an amazing moment.

I have long wondered why America during the Revolution is not a more popular setting for romance novels. To me, 18th century America has everything: drama, intrigue, romance and tragedy. The two sides are well known to American readers. The English, and British history, are respected in America to the point were a British soldier could easily be the hero of an American-set romance.

I don’t know about other romance readers, but I would say that romance novels could use a new setting. How about it writers and editors? Any thoughts on a romance hero in Colonial America?

Questions to Consider:

Why do you think most historical romances are set in the British Isles? Is that or has that always been your preference? If so, why do you think that is? If not, where would you like to see more historicals set?

Consider the fairytale aspect of the historical romance. Is that what draws you to the historical, or is it the history itself, or a combination thereof? Or something else altogether?

If you read fewer British-Isle set historical romances these days than you once did, is it because the books have a been-there, done-that quality, the history is wrong, or that the books have changed in some other way, perhaps stylistically?

How many historical romances set in North America have you read? Were all set in the U.S., or were some set in Canada, or (gasp) Mexico? Of those set in the U.S. or Canada, what were the time settings? As to preferences, do you prefer Colonial settings or 19th century, “frontier” settings? Why?

If you don’t read romances set in North America, why is that? Is it a history problem, the lack of grandeur we associate with European settings (jewels, castles, the nobility), or perhaps you can’t get into the fantasy for some other reason?

What do you think of the Colonial hero? How does he fare against the British Napoleonic War hero?

Robin Uncapher

 (AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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