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Guest blogger: Amy Rose Bennett

22 February 2015

Amy Rose BennettHistorical romance … how historically accurate should it be?

I’ve seen a number of interesting blog posts about this topic recently—and being both an avid reader and author of historical romance, I find it quite fascinating. As I’ve been provided with this wonderful opportunity to visit the ARRA blog, I thought I’d share my two bob’s worth on the subject.

I write predominately Regency and Georgian set romances. And like a great deal of historical romance authors, I endeavour to meticulously research the historical details that are blended into the fabric of my story. However, despite my best efforts, I will freely admit I have made the occasional, inadvertent (and hopefully not altogether obvious) mistake. I’m also guilty of deliberately modernizing the language I use in my stories—just a little—to suit today’s reader; more on this later…

So here’s my authorial dilemma—how historically accurate should my historical romances be? On one hand, my aim is to create a story that has an authentic historical feel, but on the other hand, I don’t want the reader to be bogged down by historical detail or unwieldy, unfamiliar and archaic language. After all, this is romantic fiction I’m creating—the emotional journey of the hero and heroine is central to the story. I’m not writing to give the reader a history lesson, but rather, to entertain her or him.

Historical errors, whether they are deliberate or accidental—made because of the author’s lack of research and/or lack of knowledge about the time period (you can’t research what you don’t know you need to research after all)—are called anachronisms. An anachronism occurs when something—it might be a word, a verbal expression, an object, or an event—is mistakenly placed in a time where it does not belong.

Here are some common anachronistic mistakes that historical Regency romance authors are sometimes ‘guilty’ of (myself included):

  • The hero and heroine have too modern an attitude towards relationships, sex and life in general and so their behaviour is atypical of the time period. In the Regency era, there were very strict rules that governed how men and women (especially) behaved in polite society. A simple example of an etiquette anachronism from my own books (perhaps) is that sometimes my Regency heroines discreetly cuss i.e. they might say ‘damn’ in their heads or under their breath. Whilst Jane Austen’s heroines never cursed (to my knowledge anyway)—and cursing aloud would certainly have been a proscribed behaviour for young Regency ladies—is it that historically inaccurate for my fictional heroines to do so? Some might think so, but I want to create strong-willed female characters who modern readers can relate to, rather than heroines who fit the classic ‘paragon of virtue’ mold that was aspired to. Interestingly enough, I recently came across an interesting tidbit or two about the colourful Lady Letitia Lade, the wife of Sir John Lade. The couple were reportedly prominent members of Regency society and close friends of the Prince Regent, even though Lady Lade was well known for both her scandalous past and use of foul language. Although I concede Lady Lade is an atypical example of a woman of her ilk, I personally don’t think that it’s really that outlandish if my Regency heroines discreetly swear when the occasion calls for it. I suppose my point is, that sometimes a reader’s own background knowledge and perception of the era—and of how men and women behaved—influences how they judge a book’s historical accuracy.
  • Errors of language: Many fans of historical romance love traditional Regencies in the style of Jane Austen (one of my favourite authors) and Georgette Heyer. You would be hard pressed to find a single instance of a contraction in any of Jane Austen’s works (e.g. “I cannot” or “I am” are used by Miss Austen rather than the contracted forms “I can’t” or “I’m”). Yet thirty years or so later, contractions seem to be quite commonplace in the works of the Brontë sisters. If I had the time, the linguist in me would love to study this further; when did the ‘shift’ to using contracted forms precisely occur? Indeed, I have come across many on-line discussions regarding the use of contractions in Regencies—there are some readers and authors who advocate a historically accurate Regency ought not to have contractions used within the text. Yet (dare I say it) the wonderful Georgette Heyer, and many modern day Regency romance authors do use contractions and often. Does this deliberate use of an anachronistic grammatical form detract from the reader’s enjoyment? It doesn’t for me as a reader and I choose to use contractions in the stories I write as I think it makes for an easier read.
    Historical romance writers also need to carefully check the origins of words and phrases that they use in their works. I actually find etymological research to be quite fun (yes, I’m a little bit weird). Who knew that the idiom ‘when pigs fly’ is perhaps derived from an old Scottish proverb? Or that the expression ‘a cock-and-bull’ story has been attributed by some (the origins of this common saying are a little hazy) to Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621—“Some men’s whole delight is to talk of a Cock and Bull over a pot”. Of course, I’m not going to use an obviously modern phrase like ‘get a grip’ in a Regency set romance, but if I decide to use the interjection ‘hell’s bells’ because it seems perfect for the scene I’m writing—online research indicates that the first recorded use of this saying may have been in 1832, whilst other sources suggest it is an oath first used in the early twentieth century (1910–1915)—will this possibly anachronistic expression throw my reader out of the story and diminish his or her experience? The vocabulary that historical romance authors use in sex scenes is also another interesting topic. I’m sure we’ve all had a giggle or two about the highly inventive ‘purple prose’ used by some authors of the genre (who doesn’t love that scene in the romcom Ten Things I Hate About You that features a discussion about synonyms for the word ‘tumescent’?). So again the question is, does one choose vocabulary for anatomical parts and activities below the waist that is historically accurate, or does one use euphemisms, or does one sprinkle in a few modern day terms? Now this could be a whole other blog topic…
  • Errors when describing clothing in Regency romances may trip up the less wary writer. For instance Regency men’s shirts did not button all the way down the front—so woe betide the Regency romance author who doesn’t have her rake pulling his shirt over his head when undressing!
  • Errors when describing daily habits or customs are easy to make if you haven’t done your research. For example morning calls were usually made in the afternoon; Regency folk generally did not take lunch.
  • Transportation errors: Details such as calculating how long a carriage journey might take from Point A to Point B, finding out if that route actually existed in that time period, or working out how far someone could feasibly travel on horseback, and at what speed in a day, can be a challenge!
  • Titles errors: I must admit it did take me a little while to wrap my head around the titles used in the English and Scottish peerage! Debrett’s Essential Guide to the Peerage is my go-to online resource when I’m checking details in this area.
  • Laws surrounding marriage, divorce, adoptions and inheritance are also common areas where slip-ups can occur in historical romance. For instance, in the Regency era, divorce was exceedingly rare. Aristocratic men could divorce their wives via a complicated, lengthy process involving both the courts and Parliament (adultery was commonly the grounds for divorce). However women were not successfully granted divorces until well after the Regency period. Hence, the heroine in my novel Lady Beauchamp’s Proposal really has no choice but to run away from her unfaithful and pox-ridden husband as obtaining a divorce would have been well-nigh impossible for a woman in 1815.

So, to all the readers who enjoy historical romance, does historical inaccuracy—for whatever the reason—drive you spare, or are you willing to overlook the occasional (and hopefully minor) anachronism if the overall story is entertaining and well-written in all other respects? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

You can find Amy here: Website | Facebook | Twitter

Lady Beauchamps ProposalLady Beauchamp’s Proposal

A runaway countess finds love when she least expects it…but she can’t hide from her past forever.

Elizabeth, Lady Beauchamp, fears for her life. When she discovers her dissolute and long-estranged husband has syphilis—and he wants to beget an heir no matter the cost—she flees to a remote part of Scotland to begin a new life as the widowed governess, Mrs. Beth Eliott at Eilean Tor Castle.

When Mrs. Eliott unexpectedly arrives on his doorstep, the reclusive and recently widowed Marquess of Rothsburgh is both irritated and intrigued. No longer in need of a governess—his young daughter now resides with his sister’s family in Edinburgh—he proposes the beautiful widow fill a position of a different kind…

Torn between staying true to her marriage vows and her wanton attraction to the devilishly handsome marquess, Elizabeth struggles against the temptation to become his mistress. But living a lie is not easy when you have fallen in love. And secrets always have a way of coming out…

16 Comments
  1. 25 February 2015 9:37 pm

    Personally I feel that the history has to be as accurate as possible and then slip my own characters into the ‘history’. Having an authentic setting makes the story more realistic to my readers. Although I agree with you Amy Rose that providing a full historical account of events isn’t to be encouraged, it is still necessary to create the scene to enable the reader to fully understand the situations my characters are experiencing.

    When my hero finds himself caught up in the Battle of Trafalgar in “Beneath Southern Stars” it was important to describe the actual battle lines of both English ships and Spaniard, so that my fictional ship can become part of the battle without being seemingly out of place…

    Loved the blog, Amy Rose. Thanks for your insights :o)

    Louise

    • amyrosebennett permalink
      26 February 2015 4:38 pm

      As Elizabeth Ellen Carter said, it is sometimes a balancing act. And how much historical detail you provide perhaps depends on to the degree to which your characters are involved in actual historical events. Thanks for your thoughts, Louise🙂 .

  2. elizabethellencarter permalink
    23 February 2015 3:11 pm

    Great article Amy! It is a fine balancing act being historically accurate and remembering that we’re writing for modern audiences.

    • amyrosebennett permalink
      23 February 2015 10:00 pm

      Thanks so much for dropping by and reading my post, Elizabeth🙂 ! I’m currently writing a scene in my WIP about a Regency spy that is making me think long and hard about how much history related to actual events to include, without giving the reader a history lesson; spies are hot but imparting details about fairly obscure treaty negotiations between Russia, Sweden and England is not! It’s a balancing act all right🙂 .

  3. 23 February 2015 9:41 am

    Hi Amy. Thanks for such an interesting post. As a Regency Historical author I have had many the same debates on the subject of historical accuracy etc.

    When I started writing A Scandalous Wager I had the hero in peril of going to debtor’s prison. This is a common thing in some Regencies I’ve read, so I thought it was fine to use, but I later found out that ‘peers’ cannot go to debtor’s prison and and that they were treated differently when it comes to the law as well. Needless to say, I then had to rethink how I was going to approach the hero’s back story in a different way that was historically correct but also something the reader could relate to. I thank Nancy the Regency Researcher (http://www.susannaives.com/nancyregencyresearcher/) for helping me with some of the less common historical matters. She is amazing and so is her site.

    • amyrosebennett permalink
      23 February 2015 12:14 pm

      It is sometimes the case that we (authors) may not research things as carefully as we should simply because we don’t know we need to! I’m glad you were able to amend your plot appropriately🙂 . I must confess that my heroine in ‘Lady Beauchamp’s Proposal’ has slightly anomalous pockets in her widow’s weeds. Pockets are pockets right?? Well no, not in Regency gowns apparently – and many of them didn’t even have pockets. Although a very kind reader who read my book (and knows a lot about Regency fashions and pockets – she wrote a wonderful blog post on them last year) has informed me that it’s not obvious that Lady Beauchamp’s pockets aren’t quite technically correct – and I can assure readers they are not done up with a zipper!!! Even though I know most readers probably won’t mind or perhaps won’t notice my minor error, my fingers are just itching to amend that little detail! Thanks for the link to Nancy’s site too🙂 .

  4. 22 February 2015 12:09 pm

    I find some of the things you mention more annoying than others. Transportation for example is hard to wrap my 21st century mind around; all I need is plausible. Attitudes toward relationships is, however, very important. There was a stronger, clearer moral compass regarding sex. That doesn’t mean people didn’t violate the rules, only that the rules were there and they influenced attitude and behavior. Language? I take a middle route. Too much accuracy can baffle a reader. I’m less of a stickler on lady’s close than some folks, but I do love Regency clothing.

    Your post was thought provoking.Thanks for sharing.

    • amyrosebennett permalink
      22 February 2015 3:23 pm

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Carol. I think part of the reason I like reading and writing about the Regency era so much is because there was a strict code of behaviour – on the surface at least. I think it offers authors great opportunities for creating conflict and high-stakes drama within a story when the rules get bent or broken😉 . I must admit that the more I write, the more conscious I am of some of the more common errors. But I’m happy to forgive a few oversights if the story is really good🙂 . And I’m with you on Regency fashions! I love the simple elegance of the era.

  5. helensibbritt permalink
    22 February 2015 11:58 am

    Great post and as a reader I am happy to let a few errors go by and in some cases I probably wouldn’t notice them especially if the story has me🙂

    Oh and I did very much enjoy Lady Beauchamp’s Proposal🙂

    Have Fun
    Helen

    • amyrosebennett permalink
      22 February 2015 1:06 pm

      Thanks for dropping by, Helen! It’s great to hear that readers are happy to forgive the odd error🙂 . And I’m so pleased you enjoyed ‘Lady Beauchamp’s Proposal’.

  6. 22 February 2015 11:53 am

    Great interview, Amy. And love the discussion on contractions.

    • amyrosebennett permalink
      22 February 2015 1:03 pm

      Thanks, Suzi! I’m pleased to see there are others that enjoy reading about the ins and outs of contractions! Who’d have thought that the use of grammatical markers could be such a controversial topic?!

  7. AnneGracie permalink
    22 February 2015 10:19 am

    Hi Amy, here’s my take on contractions — for many years (and even into my own lifetime) contractions were regarded by some as informal usage and therefore not to be encouraged in the written form, unless — and only if you “must” — when reporting direct speech — ie in dialogue. But it was frowned on by the grammar sticklers, and often taken out by those who “corrected” writing.

    However contractions were used all the time in real life and have been for centuries. The usage in daily life didn’t change — it was a surge in “grammarly correctness” that increased as education became more widespread and “rules” were needed — and developed. These were, by and large, developed for teachers. So many people learned to write in a more formal, stilted, non-contracted fashion. This was also when spelling was being regularized (though a number of variations on some words were still quite acceptable and not regarded as ‘mistakes’.)

    As for contractions in the Regency — as you say, Jane Austen didn’t use them, the Brontes did — it was a matter of personal preference and education. I have a collection of letters and journals from the early 1800s, and they also vary — as indeed they should. One writer regularly uses ‘d for past tense ed endings — eg pass’d, fear’d, scatter’d. As well as tho’ and also also wou’d, cou’d and shou’d.

    So IMO avoiding contractions is not a matter of historical accuracy. It is, and has always been, a choice made by the writer.

    • amyrosebennett permalink
      22 February 2015 11:01 am

      Thanks so much for all of that fascinating information, Anne! As an unpublished author, I once received a critique from an author of traditional Regency romance who admonished me quite soundly for using contractions – hence my defensiveness on the subject. I’ve also come across some quite interesting online discussions about the topic in Regency focused groups. Perhaps historical ‘accuracy’ related to contraction use is in the eye of the beholder.

  8. 22 February 2015 9:53 am

    Fantastic article. No cock and bull here. Thanks for this Amy

    • amyrosebennett permalink
      22 February 2015 10:46 am

      Thanks, for stopping by, Maggie. I’m so glad you enjoyed my post!

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