Historical Romance or Costume Fantasy?

In the past few weeks I have happened upon several online book reviews and blog posts by readers of historical novels. I was very surprised to read some of them taking exception to the efforts of the authors of the novels which they had read to be historically accurate. Or, they wrote that it was not important to them that the historical points in the novels be factual. As you might imagine, if you have read even a few of my Redingote articles, I was appalled by such attitudes. If the historical setting is not authentic, in my opinion it is no longer an historical novel, it is merely a costume fantasy, essentially modern characters dressed up in period clothing and prancing about period buildings.

These online reviewers complained about the lack of modern conveniences, the unfamiliar language and the restrictive social attitudes of the times in which the novels were set. To me those are the things which make historical novels so appealing. Why else would one read a novel with an historic setting if not to immerse oneself in that milieu?

Personally, I take exception to authors who cannot be bothered to take the time to do the research necessary to accurately portray the time in which their novel is set. I fully apprehend that the story line and most, if not all, of the characters in the novel are fictional, but I want the historical setting to be as authentic as possible. To me, that setting and all the unique legal, social and technical restrictions of which it is comprised is a critical part of the story. I enjoy watching the characters negotiate this environment in the course of their adventures and triumph over them to live happily ever after. And, I appreciate the opportunity to learn a bit of history as I follow the characters’ romantic escapades. I feel cheated when I read a novel which is riddled with factual errors.

One author who has never cheated me is Georgette Heyer. She spent countless hours meticulously researching the periods in which she set her stories. The language, fashions, society, food, transportation, entertainments and all other aspects of life from the eras in which her novels were set was authentic. I understand that this can sometimes be disconcerting, even off-putting for the reader, since I experienced that very thing myself. The first Heyer novel I ever read was These Old Shades. In the first paragraph the hero is introduced, though I did not recognize him as such as I read. He was described as mincing along a Paris street in shoes with very high, red heels. He was wearing a purple cloak with a rose-colored lining, a purple satin coat with a full skirt and gold lacing, a flowered silk waistcoat, glittering jewels, a powdered wig, a tricorne hat and carrying a beribboned cane. My teenage self did not find this man at all attractive. In fact, I thought him rather effeminate, almost repugnant, at this point in the story. Yet my patience and determination in continuing to read was rewarded since he was soon revealed as one of the most deliciously diabolical and thoroughly masculine romance heroes of all time, at least in my opinion.

These Old Shades was set in France and England during the mid-1750s, though it might as well have been set on the moon as far as I was concerned when I first read it. That alien world was as fascinating to me as the characters which inhabited it. I was completely absorbed as I watched these characters negotiate a world of elaborate fashions, social hierarchies, etiquette and protocol so very different from my own experience. I was captivated by the unfamiliar words and the cadence of the language spoken in ways I had never before known. I felt as though I had been transported back in time as I read. I would have felt deeply betrayed if I had discovered modern objects, manners or language in this story. They would have broken the spell Heyer had woven, rather like the moment when Christopher Reeve’s character in the movie Somewhere in Time looked at the modern penny in his pocket and was immediately whisked back to his own time.

Any author who, though ignorance or carelessness, litters their supposedly historical novel with modern words or behaviors has broken faith with their readers. I am surrounded by such things all the time, I live with them daily and cannot escape them. When I read a story set in an earlier age, I want to be transported completely to that time. I do not want to read phrases like "rush to judgement" or "national security," both of which I have read recently in novels set in the English Regency. I hear phrases like that routinely on the evening news, I don’t want to find them in historical novels. Some months ago, I read a Regency romance in which the heroine, an unmarried woman, engages in repeated surreptitious sexual activity with the hero, a supposed gentleman. I am not a prude, far from it, but I found that whole scenario totally implausible for that era. Such a thing would not have occurred during the Regency, no self-respecting gentlewoman would have been so false to her family or her upbringing. Nothing about that story rang true to the time. In my opinion, it was not an historical novel, it was a contemporary story cloaked in a costume fantasy.

I admire authors who will take the time to thoroughly research the periods about which they write, and present them accurately. It is certainly more work, but the discerning reader will appreciate their efforts and will enjoy their stories all the more. Though I have always relished the novels of Jane Austen, she is not an historical novelist. She was a contemporary of the people and times about which she wrote, so she had no need to engage in historical research. That is why I so admire Georgette Heyer, a true historical novelist. She was an indefatigable researcher and though she incorporated her vast historical knowledge into her stories, she did not beat her readers over the head with it to show off her superior scholarship. She simply told a good story about engaging characters in an authentic setting.

I was heartened by the fact that the majority of the book reviews and blog posts I have read in recent months share my sentiments. Their authors expressed a desire for accurate history portrayed in the novels they read, just as I do. I hope there are enough of us out there that the book editors and publishing companies will consider it worth their while to cater to our more discerning market by publishing historical novels with more authentic characters and settings. I can but hope.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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8 Responses to Historical Romance or Costume Fantasy?

  1. Estelyn says:

    As an avid fan of Georgette Heyer’s books for decades, I can only agree wholeheartedly with the thoughts you have expressed so well! A bit of culture shock belongs to the experience of getting to know a new country, society, or time, and a well-written book should give its readers a taste of that. Then reading is like travelling – perhaps even time-travelling!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for stopping by. Georgette Heyer is absolutely my favorite time-travel guide. My Heyer collection was lost several years ago, so I am quite delighted that so many of her books are now being reprinted. I am reveling in revisting all my old friends.

  2. Linda Banche says:

    Kat and Estelyn, you’re women after my own heart. I love the Regency “feel” of a book whose author has done her research. Nothing can throw me out of a story faster than a modernism–a Regency character saying “Okay” or describing a poor man as “not having a cent to his name”.

    Costume fantasy will always be with us, for those who want to read about pretty clothes or who want to focus solely on the romance aspect of a Regency.

    I did a blog post on Regency men’s clothes, describing a ruffled shirt as a dress shirt, and several people said they didn’t think the ruffled shirt was very masculine. Others appreciated the accurate (I try) information I gave.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Now on the subject of ruffled shirts, it seems to me it takes a VERY masculine man to carry that off. Just imagine the delicious contrast between the crisp white ruffles of his shirt against the color and texture of a decidedly masculine hand. MMmmm! 😉

      Not to mention, I consider Justin Alistair, Duke of Avon, one of the most masculine of Georgette Heyer’s heroes, yet These Old Shades opens with him mincing down a Parisian street in high-heeled shoes, an embroidered satin waistcoat and carrying a lace-edged handkerchief. But by the end of the chapter one has no doubt he is all man, and a rather dangerous one at that.

      Those who think ruffles are unmanly are not looking beyond the ruffles, IMHO.

  3. Sarah Waldock says:

    Men in ruffles are gorgeous…..
    Georgette Heyer is and always will be the mistress but may I also make a plea for some sanity in the achievement of authenticity, which too Heyer managed with great aplomb by making all the periods in which she wrote utterly accessible but with that alien strangeness that so attracts – until one is familiar with the period when the accuracy also attracts.

    Jane Austen may be a great Author – which I do not deny, I love her work – but writing entirely in the style of the period is a trifle inaccessible for many a modern reader because we have a living language that evolves. One should remain within period language [I always want to kill those authors who use the non-word ‘alright’ for example] but perhaps with less formalised phraseology.
    I write too in the Renaissance; and bearing in mind that 9 out of 10 people have not been taught the subtleties of Shakespeare, whose language is more modern than that of my period [largely because he’d be banned in schools nowadays if his more bawdy passages were explained to the little darlings]. I find myself balancing a period flavour with being understandable in a period in which Chaucer’s English is closer than Shakespeare’s.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Well, Jane Austen could not really help the style and language of her work, since she lived and wrote in that period. She was writing what were, to her, contemporary tales; that style was all she knew. And it is very likely that, in centuries to come, readers will have difficulty with Georgette Heyer’s work, as our language continues to evolve and change into the future. But those who persevere will be rewarded with the pleasure of enjoying her stories. I do believe her books are of such quality that they will survive, at least into the next century. One can only hope the OED will also survive, thus enabling her future readers to more fully understand her work.

      For novels of today, with a historical setting, it is important that the author strike a balance between capturing the flavor of the times, and yet still be understood by their readers. Otherwise, you might just as well be writing in a foreign language which no one living can understand. I do not envy you the challenge of that balancing act with a novel set in the Renaissance. I certainly wish you luck!

      Regards,

      Kat

  4. KWillow says:

    Its funny, I remember starting “These Old Shades” several times while in High School, but being put-off by the opening description. Also the book cover of a child holding a parasol over the head of a grown ma: not romantic at all, I thought! And now its one of my favorite Heyer’s. Well, they’re ALL my favorites, or whichever one I’m currently reading.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Like you, I first read it in high school. I did wonder what I had gotten myself into, when I started These Old Shades, too. But it was one of the first books I had ever purchased myself, with my own money, and I was determined not to admit I had made a mistake and had wasted my hard-eared allowance. I am so glad I persevered, as it remains perhaps my all-time favorite Heyer, though Devil’s Cub runs a very close second.

      Regards,
      Kat

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