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KJ magpie200

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.