Accuracy, Authenticity, and World-Building in Historical Romance

by Sunita

Robin’s review of Julie Anne Long’s latest Pennyroyal Green book stimulated a lively discussion of accuracy in historical romance and the (over)use of the Regency era. Robin loved the book, even though she is not a fan of Regency-set historicals, and she was willing to overlook glitches in the historical setting because she found the writing and the romantic relationship so compelling. I was skeptical. I’ve avoided Long’s books ever since I had to DNF her first one. It featured an improbable plot and the overuse of a phrase, “wee Becca,” to the point where the endearment became like nails on a chalkboard to me. I later attempted an earlier Pennyroyal book which Janine really liked, but I gave up because the implausibility of the opening scenes pulled me out of the book. Also, I am a fully paid-up member of the Society Against The Overuse Of Italics.

Nevertheless, the review of What I Did For A Duke made me want to give Long another try, and after repeatedly posting about historical accuracy in the comments, I thought I should read the book before I went any further. And guess what, I loved it. I still saw all the historical implausibilities and anachronistic language, but the hero and heroine were so engaging, and the relationship was so compelling, that I gave up counting the before-their-time words and the alternate-universe society faux pas and just went with the story.

The conversation continued in the comments and then wandered over to twitter, and a lot of thoughtful, knowledgeable people tried one more time to figure out what the boundaries of historical accuracy should be. And, of course, once again, we couldn’t do it. I made the passing comment early on in the blog discussion that I didn’t think there was any such thing as “real” historical accuracy in fiction. By that I didn’t mean that authors didn’t try to achieve it, but rather than each author and/or reader has her own criteria and her own lines in the sand.

I used to pride myself on being a stickler for historical accuracy and picking out mistakes in historical novels. Then I went back and read some of my favorite old Regencies (e.g., Marion Chesney’s The Six Sisters books) and realized that they didn’t begin to meet that standard. Yes, they capture the era in some ways, but they completely violate the rules in others. Similarly, I love Anne Stuart’s medievals and Georgian historicals, but her biggest fan couldn’t call them historically accurate. I realized that if I was really swept up in the storytelling (whether because of plot, characterization, or just the sheer style), I let a lot of things slide. And if I didn’t know the era (cough medieval Europe cough), I just read happily and ignorantly along. The only shortcoming that consistently pulls me out of my reading zone regardless of the historical era is repeated word usage mistakes, and that’s probably true for a lot of people. But it’s only part of historical accuracy.

If accuracy is a lost cause, how about authenticity? Robin suggested that alternative years ago on the old AAR boards. But that one eventually falls down for the same reason. How do we define the boundaries of authenticity? Is it basically accuracy with atmosphere? If someone can do it, I’m happy to listen and discuss, but I freely admit I can’t to my own satisfaction, let alone other people’s.

But once again hope has triumphed over experience, and I have come up with a spectrum of historical accuracy/authenticity/conviction. It draws on the various smart things people said on twitter yesterday.

Category 1: Wallpaper historicals. These are books where the characters are basically modern, but they wear period clothing, live in period houses, and refer to period events.There is no real pretense, by authors or readers who like the books, that these books represent serious attempts to depict a particular historical era. Think of it as going to a historical theme party: everyone dresses up in the theme, but they talk in their normal accents and use contemporary vocabulary and wear Spanx under their costumes.

Category 2: Historical mashups. These are books which have more of a historical feel in the voice and setting, but which aren’t consistent at depicting a given era, even when they are set in it. The characters and settings don’t behave in 21st century ways or use 21st century speech patterns, but there are enough anachronisms for a reader who is familiar with the period (though serious non-fiction or contemporary fiction) to notice. The author often combines behavior and context from a range of historical periods (usually unintentionally).

Category 3: Single-era historical lite. In these books the setting is relatively true to one era, but the characters and context slip often enough that both knowledgeable and less historically informed readers notice the anachronisms.

Category 4: Single-era historical serious. In these books there may be occasional slips, but the author is successful at depicting an internally consistent fictional world which draws from a single, recognizable historical era. Knowledgeable readers find these books satisfying even when they spot the errors.

Notice that I haven’t talked about world-building in these categories. This is because I think that all historical romance authors engage in world-building. But they have a variety of goals. I doubt most authors consciously set out to write wallpaper historicals. But there are probably not many authors who are determined to pull off the single-era historical serious novel, either. The latter takes an enormous amount of time-consuming and often tedious work, and since many readers either don’t notice or don’t care as long as the romance is good, it’s an end in itself rather than a means to publishing success.

I also think that it’s fruitless to try and assign authors to categories. One reader’s wallpaper is another reader’s historical lite. One reader’s historical serious is another reader’s historical lite. And so on.

For my own reading pleasure, I’m trying to read more books in categories 2 and 3 when reviewers I trust recommend them. I don’t think I’ll every really enjoy category 1 books, because I read for world-building as much as romance. That’s probably why I like medicals, not to mention police procedurals and dark fantasy. I love entering a world I wouldn’t otherwise have access to. But after I read, say, an Ian Rankin, I don’t feel as if I now understand what all Scottish detectives are really like.

I have enormous respect for authors who write category 4 books, and I love to read them. But they aren’t the only books I can enjoy, and if I exclude too many of the non-category 4 books, I lose out on reading some great, great, romance storytelling.

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