Thursday, July 14, 2011

Bastille Day Musings: Discovery of a World Inside a World

For those interested in historical accuracy, I must mention a few stretches of fact I felt at liberty to take in the course of creating this fiction . . . It was pure fun making up this world from the facts, the above-mentioned having been bent a little to suit.

--Judy Cuevas, Author's Note to Black Silk

What do we mean when we call a romance historical?

Nineteenth century writers like Austen and the Brontës--writers whose work is often cited as a precursor to genre romance--were often in the habit of setting their stories a decade or two prior to the date of publication. Austen started working on the earliest version of Pride and Prejudice in the 1790s, more than a decade before the official beginning of the Regency period; Wuthering Heights, published in 1847, careens from the 1750s to about 1807. Sir Walter Scott, who wrote "romances" in the catholic sense, is usually credited with the invention of the historical novel. When Waverley, set during the Jacobite uprising of 1745, was published in 1814, it achieved a wild popularity; it would make Scott as towering a figure in the first half of the century as Dickens (or "Mr. Popular Sentiment"; Trollope's withering name for the writer) was in the latter. Scott's work would spawn countless imitations and tributes (The Brontës were fans; Mary Shelley thought about him a lot; Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot often felt the effects of his influence.). Prolific and popular, he was (nearly singlehandedly) responsible for establishing the reading public's taste for long-form fiction set in other time periods. In that sense, contemporary Historical romance owes as much or more to SWS as it does to Jane, Charlotte, or Emily.

But what are the uses of history in romance? There's obviously a spectrum of how history gets deployed in romance--how "historical" a piece of writing really is. When SWS was writing about twelfth century chivalry in Ivanhoe--jousts and disinherited knights and courtly love--he was also writing (in the figures of Isaac and Rebecca) through nineteenth British anxieties about the recent influx of Jewish immigrants. That is, there's not much attempt in Ivanhoe to pretend that the world of the story is an accurate picture of medieval life. The characters speak modern English, not pre-Great Vowel shift proto-Chaucerian dialect (Even Walter Scott is no Laura Kinsale.). There's Robin Hood bouncing about in merry outlawry and everyone is so bloody noble or so bloody mean they're practically archetypal. So if a gritty, precise picture of twelfth century England wasn't what Scott's contemporary readers were responding to, what was it?

My answer would be a word that primarily pops up in discussions of SF/fantasy rather than romance: world-building. Ivanhoe has a lot of flashing swords and maidens in arcane get-ups of silk and samite, of course, and window dressing of this sort has a powerful appeal. But it matters in Ivanhoe that people use swords to negotiate, the same way that it matters that manners are the weapons of choice in a Regency-set romance. What we're responding to is less history-proper than it is the completeness of an illusion--a dream of an historical period. What are the rules of the world? Are they consistent? The more consistent and complex a world the more complete it feels--dense, massy, solid, absorbing. One of the pleasures of the well-researched novel is that it's acquired and employed enough detail that the world--however far it may be from the reality of, say, London in 1880, feels as if it could have existed. A possible world.

We want worlds, as Judy Cuevas writes in the epigraph to this piece made "from the facts" because a world (as at least one nettlesome philosopher has said) is the totality of facts. But (how perverse we are!) we don't mind if the facts are bent, so long as they're bent with care and skill. Because on facts bent in just the right way, other larger truths may be built, truths about thinking and feeling and knowing, truths about how each one of us is a world and a part of a world and a maker of worlds.

A good candidate for the first major architect of SWS-style world-building in genre romance is, of course, Georgette Heyer. The Dream of the Regency on which many contemporary Historical romances draw seems to start with her finicky attention to period details of dress and deportment. That said, however, she was, in her canny way, much more of a fantasist than people give her credit for being. For instance, the Regency cant that forms the major dialect of her world was largely her own invention--inspired sometimes by historical sources and sometimes by the vibrant slang that was current among the Bright Young Things of Jazz Age London; her heroines also owe many of their characteristics to the figure of the flapper in popular imagination.

Ideology's everywhere, of course. We are creatures of our time. No matter in what era a twenty-first century writer chooses to write, she is always writing about twenty-first century concerns. This is a good thing. We need fiction that talks to us (if indeed we need fiction at all) but we also need fiction that shows us what could be and might be and may have been. Call it speculative fiction. Call it a concrete manifestation of the historical imagination. We need dreams we can walk into and inhabit, dreams where we can wander in and fiddle with all the moving parts. And this is, perhaps, what we mean when we call a romance historical.

Now all I need is for someone to write me a perfect Dream of the French Revolution romance with sans culottes and intellectuals and bourgeois revolutionaries and heaps of uninhibited sex. No aristocrats need apply. Happy Bastille Day.


  1. Ah... excellent post. This topic is something that I'm currently wrestling with while writing my WIP. I've long been in the camp which supports historical accuracy in Historical Romance, yet, as I'm faced with the option of either creating an "historical" event or forcing my characters into a real event, the accuracy vs wallpaper argument appears flimsy and lacks context.

    For one thing, no matter if I get every detail correct, my protagonists, my antagonists, etc are 100% fictional. A major thing is that I am absorbing history through my own personal biases, as well as the personal biases of whatever primary or secondary source I use for research. I've also revisited some of the books I've read published in the 1890s/ was a bit disconcerting to realize that Edith Wharton wrote her own version of Gilded Age NY in my favorite novel, The House of Mirth.

    Yet, with all of this said, where does it leave Historical Romance? Should we abandon the accuracy vs wallpaper debate and treat the genre like Paranormal Romance, wherein two authors can write books set in present-day Portland, yet each has an entirely different set of (supernatural) rules and geography? Or should be all continue to abide by the same rules, or rather reader expectations, set in stone for "Historical Romance"?

  2. It's hard, isn't it?

    I too am drawn to books that privilege extensive and attentive research. But I agree entirely that the wallpaper/accuracy dichotomy doesn't really offer a useful picture of the problem. At the same time, it's hard to account for why it bothers me when a novel messes up--I don't know--forms of address or the date of the Battle of Obeid. Perhaps it has something to do with an implicit reader-author contract. Maybe we're prepared to suspend our disbelief about some things but not others. If so, I suspect that willingness is highly subjective and, because subjective, highly idiosyncratic. Maybe, from the perspective of the author (or author function!) it's a question of figuring out who you're writing for. Would your ideal reader care about Detail X? I wonder very much how other readers/writers think about accuracy...

    A brilliant observation about Wharton. I'll definitely concede that the scope of my comments about the centrality of worldbuilding to genre fiction are probably too narrow. (Though really there's no fiction without genre. The fact that "literary fiction" has become synonymous with "realist" fiction is a curious artifact of our time.) Worldbuilding is one of the central concerns of fiction in general. And just because authors like Wharton were writing realist fiction doesn't mean that they weren't, in effect, creating their own parallel universes. Fiction, at bottom, might be reduced to the act of creating parallel universes. Henry James, to name another Gilded Ager, seems to me a prominent example of a realist worldbuilder.

    Phenomenal questions about the state of the genre! I'll have to think about them more deeply--and I'd love to know how you'd answer them. For now, I'll say that my sympathy is almost always with movement rather than fixity. I like my readerly feathers to get a good rufflin' once in a while. But I don't expect I speak for all readers.

    (One thing I love is when a writer includes something that's historically accurate but hasn't been traditionally a part of romance's idea of what's historically accurate--like romances that acknowledge that titles--& especially dukedoms!--have always been extremely rare on the ground, even though viscounts and earls and the like are a dime a dozen in your average Historical. (I have issues with titles in general but that's fodder for another post.) I like it when it sounds like someone's actually picked up a copy of Debrett's rather than having read about it in some other Historical romance.)

    I take your point about Paranormals--the thing is, I don't think they're a special case. (This you know, of course.) The kind of rule variation you're talking about is already going on--to one degree or another--in Historical romance, only with less range. I only wish there were more of it! Certainly, there are dyed in the wool Heyerites who would never think about breaking the rules of precedence in a Mayfair ballroom as laid out by dear ol' Georgette but that doesn't mean those conventions can't be challenged or changed. Again, maybe it simply comes down to knowing what kind of illusion you're prepared to buy into--either as a writer or as a reader. I mean, I suppose, that I fervently hope that reader expectations aren't set in stone, because that means that there's little room in the genre for growth and change and I simply don't want to believe that's true. That said, I know the current publishing situation often discourages experimentation of the kind you may be talking about...

    Thanks for your thoughts here--I'll look forward to checking out your work!

  3. Great post. I agree with much of what you say, but I disagree a bit as well. On the latter side, one difference between the two is that good historical world-building is attempting to say something about both the present and the past. More crucial (and troubling) for me is that readers think they are learning about the past through historical romance, not just about the present. How many times do you read a comment where a reader says that they learned about a country/era/culture from a romance novel?

    In addition, if a reader doesn't have a good grounding in the historical period used, she has no way of knowing what the larger context is, so she cannot place the built world in a larger perspective. That leads to the kind of over-reliance on the veracity of built worlds that makes it difficult for authors who want to depart from that world. Heyer's Regency is an obvious case in point.

    I've got a couple of half-finished posts on this; you're spurring me to get at least one of them done!


  4. Excellent--I'll look forward to reading what you have to say about this.

    Good call about the present/past relationship--that's a question that I definitely have some thoughts about--especially in terms of Historical Romance's (general, not universal) evasion of the Really Hard Questions about privilege and culture that go along with constructing worlds that (almost by default) tend to feature rich or "well-bred" white folk. More on this later?

    I also really respond to your point about learning about the past through Historical Romance. Very troubling indeed! I know that comment. It makes me cringe every time.

  5. there's no evidence that Georgette Heyer made up the cant in her books. Most of it can be found in books that were available in the period she writes about. There are one or two words that people aren't sure about, but it's just as likely that she found them in private letters of the period, or another of the books in her extensive library.
    Even if you live in an era, you are not aware of everything going on then, or you don't care to write about it. Austen rarely mentions the politics of her time, for instance. That wasn't her subject.
    There is a "real" world, which is where we live, and then there's the realism and realistic portrayals in the novels we read. Since the novel is essentially an artificial construct, as artificial as an essay or a poem, then the author has to select what she puts in her book.
    A lack of authenticity is when an author uses something that absolutely wouldn't have happened in that period, like a Freudian analysis in the Regency.
    With Heyer, you are writing about the same phenomenon that is also present in films like "Gone With The Wind," which was praised for its historical authenticity at the time. Now, the boxy hairstyles and red lipstick of the late 1930's is painfully evident to the reader, but then, they were so used to them that they didn't notice.

  6. Good points.

    I don't mean to suggest that Heyer wasn't using historical sources, only to say that that the cohesive dialect she forms out of them is entirely her own. That's not at all a disparagement. It's a pretty nifty accomplishment--an imaginative act like that.

    I agree: Austen doesn't write overtly about politics much. But Austen novels do have politics, I think--a crucial distinction.

    Yes, absolutely, authors have to be selective about what goes into a world. That's, I think, a significant part of successful worldbuilding--selection. GWTW is an interesting example. I think both book and movie qualify as a dream of history, each in its own way.

    I'm not trying to be down on researched historical pieces--on the contrary, I think fidelity to the details of an historical period significantly enhances aesthetic pleasure. I think I'm trying to make a rather more modest claim (in that it's been made before and by people much smarter than I): no matter what kind of past a text is constructing, the present (it seems to me) is always going to come through in various ways, even if not by design. ("Authenticity" is a word I find difficult for many reasons.) To take your example, yes, a Freudian analysis in a Regency-set book would be a jarring anachronism. But, I think, since we live in a post-Freudian world, often it's hard to get away from that method of psychologizing. (For instance, I've read a lot of Regency pieces in which big character points are explained almost solely through some kind of primal scene childhood trauma--an implicit Oedipal complex or similar. That seems a very post-Freudian way of thinking about how minds work...)

    Thanks for your thoughts here.

  7. The Freudian example is an intriguing one. It illustrates both the pitfalls and the inability of keeping the present out of the past in our writing. If an author explicitly refers to Freudian analysis in a 19thC historical, it's going to feel anachronistic to the reader. But that language is so embedded in contemporary discourse that the reader probably *thinks* in Freudian language, so a subtle use of the terms without directly invoking Freud may well pass unnoticed. At the other end of the spectrum, using words that were common in the 19thC (humors? hysteria?) will jerk many readers out of the story, and may well offend them.

  8. I am intrigued the phrase "Reader-Author Contract" in regards to historical romance. It seems historical romance readers are even more sensitive about what they expect from the sub-genre's authors than readers of other sub-genres of romance.

    A few months ago, I browsed through Amazon reviews of one of Laura Lee Guhrke's latest release and was taken aback when one reader stated their enjoyment dipped dramatically when they discovered the setting was 1903 rather than 1803 or 1823. Granted, the cover was vaguely "Regency," but even though this reader apparently liked Guhrke's writing, that twentieth century date broke the "contract".

    Good call about the present/past relationship--that's a question that I definitely have some thoughts about--especially in terms of Historical Romance's (general, not universal) evasion of the Really Hard Questions about privilege and culture that go along with constructing worlds that (almost by default) tend to feature rich or "well-bred" white folk.

    Arg...this is an issue with which I wrestle daily the more I research my chosen time period. Most readers want high society romps, I like high society romps, and I love reading contemporary accounts of aristocratic life in volumes of Country Life or Munsey's Magazine. However, as a woman of mixed ethnicity, it feels odd to merely present this completely frothy and nonthreatening view of the past. But on the other hand, I feel a tad guilty when I want to write a straightforward romance set in the British Raj and I don't want readers to feel preached at. This makes me ask why we (general we) enjoy reading and writing historical romance. What are the implications behind the "escapism"?

  9. Whoops. Missed this comment but am responding now! (Obvs.) That's definitely a strange one for me too--that "dateline" resistance"--although I confess to having a pretty flexible palate. I tend to assume that any setting can make for a great read depending on how it's written.

    My general impression (highly unscientific) is that readers of hist. rom. are , in general, highly sensitive about their expectations.

    LOVE Munsey's . Love it. I also like high society romps. But, oddly, it's this liking--more than almost any other aspect of hist.rom.--about which I feel most conflicted. Do I love froth and pretty gowns and witty drawing room repartee? I do! But is part of my hypothetical soul always belowstairs with the invisibles and the untouchables who implicitly make all that possible? Do I sometimes want some uppity servant or another to spill hot tea on someone's superfine clad lap accidentally on purpose? Yes! My heart is upstairs/downstairs. My heart is Gosford Park.

    I think your question about why we enjoy reading/writing historical romance is going to be one of the major working queries of this blog. And your escapism question certainly merits its own post. Premliminarily, I'll say that, for me, it probably depends on what one means my "escapism." And also that, unlike many readers, I think escapism shouldn't necessarily be a slur (like anything, it can be done well or badly) and, in fact, serves a real and necessary function.