Historical Romance: learn or die

I am not writing about the election. I’m not. If you want my opinion you can find it, extensively, on Twitter, although let’s be honest, if you’ve ever read anything by me you can probably take a stab in the dark as to what I think anyway.

Instead, I’m going  to talk more about getting British titles right in historical romance. Which seems a pretty trivial thing to write about at such a time but I have a couple of points to make, and only one of them is “JFC do your research”.

I wrote this post about aristocratic titles in large part because I’m sick of reading blurbs that begin,

Lord Michael Pemberley, the Earl of Northfield, has long delighted in the carefree existence he enjoys as the ducal heir.

That (with names changed because I want to pick on a general issue rather than this specific book) is a quote from a published book. I can see two (maybe three) glaring problems in that, the first line of the blurb, starting with the guy’s title.

 

 

 

***pause for writers of historicals to work it out. Here is your cheat sheet.***

 

 

 

 

An earl is addressed as Lord Title. If he is earl of Northfield, he’s Lord Northfield. “Lord Firstname” is a courtesy title granted to a younger son; Michael is the heir and thus the eldest son. This is not optional; he cannot be both an eldest son and a younger son. Calling him “Lord Michael the Earl” makes as much sense as calling him “Sergeant Pemberley the Admiral”.

Nitpick: Courtesy titles don’t take “the” so if this is introducing him, rather than a casual narrative reference, he ought to be Michael Pemberley, earl of Northfield (or Michael Pemberley, Lord Northfield).

Now, the book in question goes on to have the duke’s heir marry a commoner of the lowest kind. In historical romance terms I have no problem with that. It’s wildly implausible, sure, but I like a good Cinderella story as much as anyone. I’m cool with a romance that overturns an established order; that is, in fact, what historical romance does, by putting women and queer people at the centre of the story.

So my problem isn’t a romance defying the established power system. My problem is when a book doesn’t understand the power system it’s nominally about. And this blurb (which I am picking on as just one of many) suggests precisely that because of a) getting the main character’s title wrong, and b) the description of the heir to a duke as having a “carefree existence”.

A story about a lower class woman with no rights and a male duke’s heir with immense wealth and privilege is a story about power imbalance. If you don’t understand the power system, you cannot write a meaningful story about power imbalance within it. If you’re writing about aristocracy, about class gaps, about people needing to marry for money, about people meeting or not meeting family expectations when they fall in love, about inheritance, about the freedom to live as you want or dependence on someone else holding the purse strings, about the need to fit into a social role and the chance that your love story will blow your position in that order out of the water, let alone possibly endanger your life or liberty…if you are writing a historical romance where any of those things ought to apply and you just handwave them or treat them as unimportant, I would ask very seriously what you’re writing historical romance for.

This is not just a matter of taste—“Very Serious Romances with lots of politics are better than ones with floofy dresses and fun!” It is, I think, a matter of craft.

Take Lord Michael the Earl enjoying the “freedom afforded him as the ducal heir”. What that says is, Wow, a really rich guy, he must have a great life. It’s not looking at, for example, what it would really mean to be heir to a duke, one step below the king, possessed of jawdropping wealth, vast landholdings, literally thousands of people depending on you. The weight of the position, the responsibility to which you were born. What sort of mentality it would take to ignore it, and why you would, and what that would say about your political views, micro and macro, what you’d ever been exposed to, how you’d have been brought up to regard other people. The hero might be crushed by his position, or he might indeed be an irresponsible pleasure seeker ignoring his responsibilities, or an earnest man shouldering them with enthusiasm. But he’s got to be in his place in society in time in some way because that’s what the “historical” part of “historical romance” means.

Writing “Lord Michael the Earl” pretty much advertises that you haven’t looked at the basic functions of the society you’re writing about or considered how people operate within it, which isn’t something I’d recommend slapping on your book cover. It proclaims the book to be contemporary romance with a dressing-up box.  And mostly, it misses out on the chance to explore different perspectives from those of, for example, a 21st-century mildly liberal white American.

I wrote a book, A Gentleman’s Position, which is the story of Lord Richard Vane, a marquess’s younger brother, who falls in love with his valet. The power balance is obscenely skewed, and the entire conflict comes down to whether there is any way that a relationship between two people in such grossly unequal positions, embedded in a class structure of inferiority and superiority, can work. For Lord Richard, following his heart feels profoundly morally wrong, for his valet it’s wildly transgressive and incredibly risky—and that’s without considering the effects of a grossly homophobic society. Lord Richard gets a lot of flak from readers for having a serious stick up his arse on the subject. (Quite fairly. What? I’m not here to make my characters’ lives easy.) But he considers himself responsible for the virtue and well being of his valet because that was what a good man in his time and position should do. It is a book that basically wouldn’t work at all without the historical attitudes because they are the source of the conflict.

I think this is one of the most romantic romances I’ve written, because Lord Richard  has to change his entire socially programmed way of thinking in order to be with the one he loves. And “learn to change your entirely socially programmed way of thinking” is not an outdated theme. I’d say it might be one of the most important challenges facing all of us if we want to confront racism and misogyny and homophobia and transphobia and ableism and xenophobia and all the other ways we have of keeping one another down instead of lifting each other up, which are all written on us by the world we live in.

Historical fiction has a unique opportunity to examine different ways of thinking and expand the reader’s horizons. The ways that good people can think things that we might now find hair-raising; the ideas and situations that used to be taken for granted; the ways society shapes people. Historicals can show us the continuity, the sameness, of humanity amid completely different societies and histories and pressures and constrictions—all of which will press and warp and shove that common humanity in different ways. Because society affects people, and we can hurt each other in so many ways when we don’t confront power structures, when we refuse to see them at all, when we take our way of thinking for granted or assume our version of “the right thing” is the same as everyone else’s.

That’s why I think it matters not to handwave historical attitudes or ignore the ways a society works in favour of taking our ideas and priorities and beliefs as the only right way. Because I think it’s pretty obvious at the moment that we 21st-century people are not in fact all-wise, that liberal values are not to be taken for granted, and that people who don’t learn from history are, indeed, condemned to repeat it. God help us all.

 

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KJ Charles is a writer and editor. Her next novel is Wanted, a Gentleman, out in January.

This is an edited and mucked-about-with version of a speech I gave at the Manifold Press Queer Company 2 event.

9 replies
  1. srand
    srand says:

    This post crystallizes for me why – regardless of gender and sexuality – you are one of the best historical romance writers I know.

    I read historical romance for the historical context. (Although it seems weird to some people, this is also why I read historical paranormals.) In our current culture, many of the surface layers of that history – especially in the common Regency/Victorian setting – have had their roughest edges buffed away by time and a kind of cultural nostalgia. But I want to go deeper, to try to see the true power dynamics that existed then.

    I don’t always know how truly historical a story is, but writers like you are slowly educating me.

    Here’s a good example, I think: I am currently reading _Rites of Summer_ by Tess Bowery. I don’t feel knowledgeable enough yet to say that it’s categorically good history, but I was struck by something that I had noticed in a few other good historicals – namely: Gay men were executed for being gay.

    Executed. Hanged. Think about that for a moment. In contemporary American terms: Arrested, tried, and sentenced to the electric chair … for being gay. It was a real and present danger to gay men at the time.

    Buffing that away, casting gay relationships in that era as culturally transgressive while setting the couple in what is basically a safe, supportive environment … You know the stories: Turns out the mother is just happy that her son is happy, even if it’s with another man. Turns out the friends who find out accidentally don’t really care that much, except for the one friend who comes by to quietly admit that he is gay also. Turns out the landlord and the employer are both more concerned with money than silly social conventions. And so on. These kinds of stories are not only historically improbable, they ignore so much of the essential context that I have trouble not reading them as disrespectful of everyone involved.

    Well. You’ve said all this yourself, and better. But your post today struck me – that whether it’s intended or not, some level of disrespect is there whenever the actual power dynamics and historical context are ignored … and that extends all the way to getting the bloody titles right.

    (Please excuse the misspellings and grammar mistakes. My cognitive problems are strong today, and I’m not certain I corrected everything … er … correctly.)

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I absolutely loved Rite of Summer, same reason. I don’t think I’ve seen another queer historical, or any historical, mention the Vere Street Coterie. All that Tess Bowery series is great for the period detail–which, as you say, really matters. And it’s not that we should assume everyone would have been homophobic or unaware that homosexuality existed, far from it. The past was never a monolith of opinion. But if we only present the world from the viewpoint of a modern Western liberal democrat, we’re actually looking at a very, very narrow view of human thought and nature.

      Joanna Chambers Enlightenment series is also superb on historical detail, if you haven’t read those.

      Reply
      • srand
        srand says:

        “And it’s not that we should assume everyone would have been homophobic or unaware that homosexuality existed, far from it. The past was never a monolith of opinion.”

        That’s a very good point. Understanding the past (at least well enough to write about it well) requires understanding the complexity of the people who lived there as well as the underlying culture.

        And I almost mentioned Joanna Chambers’ Enlightenment series in my comment – love those books!

        Reply
  2. Lotta
    Lotta says:

    Thank you for a really fun post! Lord Michael the Earl sounds a little like someone wanted to write a billionaire romance, but also with fancy titles. For someone coming from the outside of Britain (like me), the titles naturally feel a bit exotic, which is why some writers use them without thinking further about the social implications, one would guess.

    I also find that dialogue that doesn’t seem to match the time the story is set can really take me out of the story when I read. And keeping the dialogue in line with the time is probably quite hard to do, which is why all the Austen spin-offs don’t work so well.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Yeah, it is basically fancy-dress billionaire romance. And I get people want fantasy and fun. But you know, Britain is a real country and our history actually happened, and I think that erasing everything difficult in the name of fantasy is, let’s say, problematic. Titles seem a small thing but for me, if you haven’t put in any effort on the tiny things, that seems likely to be a predictor for the big things not working.

      Reply
  3. Caz
    Caz says:

    Britain is a real country and our history actually happened, and I think that erasing everything difficult in the name of fantasy is, let’s say, problematic.

    And, dare I say, just a bit insulting? I just finished reading a book – which I’m about to review – in which it seems the author did NO research and has never read an historical romance. Yet there will be people who say they don’t give a fig about historical accuracy and that I’m being too critical. But it’s about far more than just being pedantic. And at its basest level, it’s about simple good manners. If you’re going to set your book in my country, at least look up things like 19th century mourning customs and learn that an “ass” is a donkey and not the thing you sit on. Learn that women didn’t wear bloomers in the Regency period, and that there was no such thing as a Dinner Jacket. Oh, and while I’m banging on, how about working out we don’t have sidewalks, stores or fall, and that we go someWHERE (not some place) and that going “along the road aways” isn’t something we do NOW, let alone two hundred years ago?

    If I were a writer – which I’m not – and I were to set a book in the US, I would make sure I checked these things out. I’d even spell words wrongly just to keep the USians happy! 😉

    What makes it worse is that it’s not difficult to find this sort of information.

    Reply
    • srand
      srand says:

      A while back, I read a contemporary urban fantasy set in the Deep South (a region of the US with a particular historical feel) written by a European author … one who skimped on the research. It was unintentionally hilarious, especially the dialog. But … the cultural aspects dealing with race and religion were so off as to be downright rage-inducing. So a mixed experience all the way around.

      “Yet there will be people who say they don’t give a fig about historical accuracy and that I’m being too critical. But it’s about far more than just being pedantic.”

      I fell into an argument with my partner about this while telling him about this post. I read – and enjoy – a lot of what I call ‘m/m fantasy romance’. The fantasy there refers to the theme of the story – is it fantasy-fulfillment? – rather than the setting. He knows I read and enjoy those books, so he wanted to know why I was being so pedantic about realism only in certain situations.

      The best I could tell him was that sometimes I want to read an obvious Cinderella fairy-tale, and sometimes I want realistic stories about real people in a real situation. When you invoke what looks like or claims to be realistic history, that’s when it gets problematic for me. That’s why I much prefer more obviously non-realistic settings for my fantasy romance, m/m or not. (Alternate histories can be a lot of fun for this, although my favorites run to space opera.)

      Reply
  4. sian
    sian says:

    I’m actually coming off the back of reading “A Gentleman’s Position,” since I’m taking Terry Pratchett’s advice and reading everything I can in the genre I (sort of) plan to hopefully publish in; I rather enjoyed it, especially the planned sting.

    This post is relevent to my interests, since I have triple checked if my story -a countess who marries a rich (non human) merchant can inherit her peerage still (turns out, yes she can, thanks to no entail, no abeyance and having an older form of an Earldom.) She is ‘suo jure’ and her halfbreed children will also be titled, even if dear ol’ dad is just a mister. They’ll probably be getting no vouchers at Almack’s though, thanks to the scandal. (Which reminds me, I have to read Heyer at some point, seems her characters were obsessed with those damn vouchers.)

    While you’re correct with titles, I’d argue your use of first names would toe the line of rudeness for the era, and to perhaps make a mention of this in your post about titles for googling passerbys anxious about correct forms, even for non peerage characters. As an aside, calling a toddler by his/her courtesy title is the most cloying thing to write. Poor nannies/governesses, really- must be hard to admonish his lordship for painting the nursery walls with his pee.

    All the correspondence I’ve found in the 19th c, including love letters, are really formal in terms of address. I am writing in a 1795 time period right now, and for my main character to be called Mr. Surname by his besotted wife who’ll occasionally manage a “my dear” if feeling frisky sounds so very odd to my modern ears. It seems first names are only reserved for children!

    -S

    Reply
  5. PC
    PC says:

    Thank you.

    Lack of understanding of the class system is probably my biggest bugbear, along with “I don’t understand royal privelage / class driven social boundaries. I know. I worked in an office! I’ll just have my characters treat the King/Duke/Nobleman the way I treated my manager. That works doesn’t it?”

    Sorry for the mini-rant but both things drive me draft 🙂

    Reply

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