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For the love of god, learn something about historical periods before writing about them

Posted in Irritated Reviews, and Just for Writers

Regency2

I wasn't going to post another Irritated Review™ so soon, but I was reading a Regency Romance novella and I couldn't restrain myself. I'll refrain from naming book or author, but going by the author picture, she's young.

The problems come in two particular flavors: errors of fact and behavior for the period, and modern points of view projected into the past.

Normally I object to these sorts of problems because they throw me out of a book, sometimes violently. In this case, they were so numerous that it was like trying to make out the plot while facing a hail of bullets, one after another. Soon I was no longer reading for the story, but looking for the next blooper, like a game. Here are some of the highlights.

Misused words

There is only the haziest understanding of how a visitor to a town is housed, and it's not in a guesthouse, the term chosen by the author, which does not exist. Inns in villages and hotels in towns are actually what she meant, but other than one reference to lodgings, we keep reading about the guesthouse.

There are waistcoats which are portly (rather than the men wearing them), and brows on ships, where men can stand.

Men want to step onto the “Regent's British soil.” “Regent” is not a synonym for “king” — do you suppose we should be singing “God Save the Regent”?  Later there's a reference to “now that the Regent sat the throne.” Thrones are the seats of anointed kings, not regents, even if they are princes as in this case.

The management of households

The rank of the heroine is never declared, but she is subject to an arranged marriage to the 5th son of a Duke and her parents were the wealthiest in the town, so she must be a member of the lower reaches of the aristocracy, if not higher. Her house is (sketchily) described in matching fashion — it's at least large and well-appointed, though envisioned more as a townhouse than an estate.

And apparently the house has not one single servant.

Kitchen staffNo one to bring tea, no one to dust all the furniture, no one to answer the door when someone knocks, no maid to help her dress, no cook, no one to tend the gardens, no one to do the laundry, no one to empty the chamber pots. If she has horses, no one responsible for their care. There is absolutely no one else in and around her house, not so much as a lapdog. And, apparently, no steward or business manager to run whatever estate or business her income derives from. If the income comes from rents, who collects them? If from a business (not appropriate to her presumed class), who manages it, now that her parents are dead?

Did her parents live this way, too? If not, was there a great firing of servants, a casting off of pensioners in the few weeks since her parents' deaths?

She answers her own door, and brings water to a guest. Every thing else about her household must be tended by the brownies, one presumes. I wonder where she gets the milk to pay them?

Unmarried women

Where to start…  Her parents have arranged her marriage to a Duke's son, and then died before the wedding. She goes away to the wedding by herself. (No maid? No guardian? No chaperone? Who “gives this woman to this man”?) The groom jilts her at the altar, and later writes her to apologize and thanks her for not bringing a breach of promise suit.

Her parents were wealthy, and we can only assume she has no siblings, so she's an heiress. She is at least of a class that would not embarrass a Duke's family for a younger son. Are there no papers signed between the two families, defining inheritances, dowries, and all the economic components of arranged marriages between people of their class?

Is she her parents' heir? (If her father was titled, the title and an entailed estate (if entailed) might belong to someone else.) She returns after the failed wedding and lives alone, and the impact of any papers signed between the families is never mentioned. “Breach of promise” doesn't really cover it.

Unmarried young women do not live alone, whatever their age. They live with their families. If no family members can be located, they hire female companions. Not to do so would be scandalous, the sort of scandal that ruins reputations.

Chancery Court

We don't know if she is of age or not, though there's no reason to believe she is. (Her wedding would typically be well before she was 21.) So she is probably also underage and thus in requirement of a guardian.

If her father didn't designate a guardian, then this would typically be someone in the family who was not a candidate for inheritance himself, should she subsequently die. If no one could be found, then the courts of Chancery would get involved, for an estate with money.

So, again — she wouldn't be living alone.

Society and its motivations

The heroine is repeatedly described as wealthy, her parents the wealthiest in the town. Her parents have recently died. Everyone knows who she is at the church.

She had returned from her wedding unmarried, without explanation, and the whiff of scandal follows her. In the five weeks since she has returned, no one has called upon her (maybe because they fear she will open her own door if they do — after all, every one of her callers would have at least a few servants of their own).

Now think about this… What are the odds that her parents were sponsors of various town organizations, in their capacity as lords of the manor or “the rich folk”? Would none of those organizations call upon the daughter to make sure the money would still flow? Would her vicar not call upon her, regardless of any speculative scandal that might keep society matrons away?

And about those society matrons… With a young and beautiful heiress at large (apparently with no guardian), is there any young man anywhere of the correct class in need of money whose mother wouldn't be glad to help him to a wife?

Behavior

But, then, maybe everyone else is right to stay away, since her behavior is pretty reprehensible. She has chosen to live without chaperones (or servants) thus leaving herself open to scandal over potentially unclean behavior (and unclean household).

She enters the, um, guesthouse where the hero is staying, by herself (unlikely), announces to the vulgar crowd that she wishes to see the hero (exposing herself to catcalls), and asks to be shown to his room (impossible), where she is received, and the door is then closed.

No genteel female's reputation would recover from this. It's so implausible, that you can't picture a properly raised young woman doing it. There are many ways for her to arrange a meeting with the hero that don't involve this sort of carpet-bombing of her reputation, so this is completely unbelievable.

Physical impossibility

Drawing, part of a woman's education

In the schoolroom, where our hero has only with difficulty forced open the small windows, our heroine wants to elude his grasp. So “lifting her skirts above her knees with both hands, [she] slipped out of the large gap and into the field.”

The “lifting skirts above her knees” is a level of immodesty that no upper-class virgin would permit. And picture, if you would, the typical Regency dress in fine materials and a jammed dirty window. I have trouble picturing the one passing through the other — how about you?

So, how does this happen?

I can well understand that Regency Romances aren't everyone's cup of tea, but I can't help believing that everyone who likes the genre well enough to write in it must surely have read at least the Jane Austen corpus. Unfortunately, I have read too many wannabes in this sub-genre to any longer give credence to my thesis — no one could have read the Jane Austen books and made this many mistakes.

Whatever you may say about the genre as a whole, Jane Austen was at least writing about her contemporaries, more or less. While I would call her novels comedies of manners rather than romances, still she is a reliable guide to the social behaviors of the period. The romance writers who follow her are writing about the mores of two hundred years ago — they would be well advised to pay attention.

There are no shortage of books out there describing “the world of Jane Austen” — it would be nice if all of the authors writing in this period demonstrated some evidence of reading them. While some authors in this sub-genre are better than others, none come close to the standards of Georgette Heyer. Certainly this author doesn't.

I can only speculate about the causes.

Movies

If your only knowledge of the Regency period in England comes from movies, I bet that explains a lot. Then the storytelling more closely resembles a game of “dress up” where everyone wears pretty clothing. But that's a game for children, not grown ups. If you like a movie, why wouldn't you read the book behind it? And learn more about the period?

Setting? What setting?

The world-building is not serious. Economics are completely absent. There are few constraints recognized that are absent from the present world (travel, lodging, food, cleanliness).

For example, a wealthy young woman living alone after her parents' death in today's world might have no servants (just modern appliances), would think nothing of answering her own door, and would never think of a chaperone. Her money sits in a bank and she is not troubled with managing it actively. She might even marry without friends or family attending. If underage, she might have to work with an executor briefly.

When you shove that young woman into an historical period, you get fitful and inconsistent results, because the differences are invisible to the present world — servants (and pensioners), social obligations to sponsor local charitable causes, behaviors that are simply inappropriate, devastatingly so in the period. In this “anything goes” modern world, the notion that there are impermissible behaviors is something some authors don't seem to notice about the past, and if they can't see them, they can't internalize how those constraints can make the stories more interesting.

For certain writers, anything set outside of the modern familiar world fails to trigger that sense of falsity that would alert them to a possible error for a story set in their familiar place and time. They're blind to the mistakes.

Dreamworlds

These books strike me as pleasant daydreams, but they demonstrate a lack of seriousness that I find downright insulting as a reader. They operate in a gray area between fantasy and history without enough specificity and rigor to work well in either context. And without that grounding, I can no more care about the artificial characters and plot devices than I can care about a dream.

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4 Comments

  1. True, very true. But keep in mind that some writers have no concept of historical periods. They think their role is a writer is to use their imagination, creating everything out of their own heads. We should be glad that in their world gravity still functions and water remains wet. All else is up in the air. Creative license now covers everything.

    It’s also true that for at least twenty years our schools have been dreadful at teaching history, considering anything that makes demands on a student’s memory as “drill and kill.”

    Watch this video and you’ll discover just how little otherwise bright university students know about even history as recent as World War II. No wonder they know nothing about a time as obscure as Regency England or how the English upperclasses once lived.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4V4bmm6yJMw

    The interviews begin two minutes into the video. Be warned. The interviews that Rhonda Fink-Whitman makes are very depressing. It’s not just how little these students know, it’s also the difficulty they display even expressing their thoughts. And I stress these are university students. A sample:

    Q. “Which country was Adolf Hitler the leader of?”

    A. “I think it’s Amsterdam.”

    Some don’t know where the countries of Europe are or even what constitutes a country. Requiring them to place countries on a map would have been ‘drill and kill.’ Of course that and their utter inability to place dates and events means they lack a framework in which to place new knowledge. They’re not simply ignorant of history. They’d been deprived of any ability to learn history.

    That sets them up for an Orwellian world in which what is considered history constantly changes to suit those in power.

    –Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride, a novel set in 1870s North Carolina. The other author lived then, so the history and culture could not be more accurate.

    August 19, 2016
    |Reply
    • All granted, Michael. But they must have liked something based on Jane Austen originally, even if it was at third hand.

      Pretend that some Austen movie were a video game. If they wanted to play in that game’s world, they would need to internalize the rules. But a book like the one I just critiqued shows no ability to do even that much. Even mediocre fan-fic should be able to do that.

      So if they like something well enough to set a book there (and it wasn’t this author’s first Regency Romance), then how can they be so gobsmackingly dim at discerning the rules, even in a vacuum of historical ignorance?

      I would maintain that they don’t discern the rules, because the rules are alien to their limited modern experience. It’s the “can’t see the water they swim in” problem.

      As a fellow-author, I don’t want to really rain on her sales by posting something like this in the form of a real review on a retail site, but I am depressed by how few readers call out authors like this for gross ignorance.

      If all I ever knew about classical music and opera came out of Warners Bros cartoons, well, I could do a lot worse. My assumptions would be… incomplete 🙂 but they wouldn’t be altogether wrong.

      This author’s assumptions are not just incomplete, but amazingly wrong. And she’s not alone. See http://hollowlands.com/2014/08/learning-from-the-mistakes-of-others-2/

      August 19, 2016
      |Reply
  2. Eleanor
    Eleanor

    Oh you have so hit a nerve. This is the reason I don’t read historical (hysterical?) romance any more. I have given up. It used to be a favorite genre of mine too. I grew up inhaling Georgette Heyer, and Thomas Costain, and Raphael Sabatini, and Evelyn Anthony…

    I am appalled that publishers allow people to publish such nonsense, and I am also appalled that no one calls them out for it. Even solid 5 star reviews on Amazon are no guarantee. I admit to being pretty well read, but still! If an author is going to write such silliness, at least make it a fantasy, or place it in an alternate universe. On the bright side, Georgette Heyer is currently being re-published and I can fill in the holes in my collection and replace the old favorites whose pages are falling out.

    I’m old and getting older, so this is me spitting into the wind. I do worry about my nieces and nephews though. What the heck are they being taught?

    August 23, 2016
    |Reply
    • I’m a huge fan of Heyer and have completely given up getting anything even readable without outrage setting in by Chapter 2 by anyone else. And of course, the potboilers by Sabatini et alia remain fun. (Scaramouche — long a favorite reread).

      I’ve always had a sneaking fondness for Alfred Duggan. Somehow his characters are always concerned with economics and getting ahead, even as they pillage from their Norman strongholds.

      And if you think this sort of author is bad, the further back you go, the worse it gets.

      Certainly there are historical novelists who get things right, but those aren’t the people writing these romances, best as I can tell. Someone should tell them there’s money to be had if they want to spin off a Romance line, under a pseudonym if necessary.

      August 23, 2016
      |Reply

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