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Things That Make Me Go… Hmmm…

February 28, 2011
The Swing, by Fragonard

Historical romances quite often get bashed for being historically inaccurate – and they tend to be, I quite agree – but the points addressed are often in themselves based on misconceptions. Sweeping statements about History are made, quite often quite contrary to what historical research actually indicates. There are so many ‘truths’ that ‘everybody knows’ tossed about that just aren’t true! It really irks me, you know. I’m anal like that.

Therefore, today I wanted to take the opportunity to bust a few of those most popular myths that swirl about Romancelandia.

1) History is one long linear development

This misconception is a lot more common than you might think. I have seen arguments regarding what a Regency character would do based on what someone’s grandmother would have done in the 1920’s with the added assumption that the Regency was the same, only more. This is not true. Things like attitudes to sex, gender and morality at large have varied greatly, both over time and between different cultures.

Prince Albert

Take ‘my’ period for example – you can see a lot of shifting attitudes over the course of the 18th century and certainly the Georgians were a lot more outspoken than their Victorian counterparts one hundred years later. According to a German traveler, one might make the mistake of believing that everyone in London was called ‘Damme’ because the word was tossed around so much – not something you would have heard in 1930. Even ladies could swear a blue streak in Georgian England while you wouldn’t ever hear a Victorian lady do the same. At the same time, what an aristocratic English lady could get away with in the 18th century compared to what a woman of the middling class in New England could do at that very same time… Not the same, or the Duchess of Devonshire would have led a much blander life!

Louis XIV, by Rigaud

Likewise, what has been considered male and female has changed over time. Compare these pictures of Louis XIV and Prince Albert, for example, Both are expressions of masculinity but in ways that reflects the values and aesthetics of each era.

A Georgian gentleman probably didn’t feel one ounce less male because he wore high heels, but imagine an Edwardian gentleman in that? Wouldn’t have worked. Likewise, tears were not considered unmanly for a very long time. A man in the 1950s couldn’t have cried in public, but Louis XIV felt quite free to cry at council and no one lifted an eyebrow (admittedly, people tended to try to avoid expressing disapproval of Louis, him being the state and all, but you get the picture. It wasn’t newsworthy).

So, let us crush that myth. History isn’t one place. It’s many.

2) In History, women married when they were barely more than children.

In line with what I said under 1), I will argue that the marriage age has varied over time and between different social groups. But look closely at my period – about 1740 – 1790 – and you’ll find the truth is very far from the statement above. In the lower classes, marriage usually had to wait due to financial reasons – there had to be enough capital to sent up a home. Quite often, one had to wait for one’s parents to move on into a better world, crass as it might sound. In London, couples married slightly earlier than in the rest of England but mid-twenties seem rather common.

But in the upper classes then? Surely there was no similar obstacle there? Well, perhaps not but the mean age for marriage for noblewomen in this period was twenty-four years and nine months. Almost twenty-five. And ‘mean age’ means that several were older. See? No need for heroines barely out of the nursery.

Myth number 2, crushed.

3) In History, the idea of marrying for love was ridiculous and no one expected to.

Again, speaking of my era only, marriage was certainly not what it is today. It was very much a career – for women the only one they could ever make. Finding a social equal, one who would bring connections and prosperity to your family was absolutely considered vital. Does that mean that marriage was looked upon as a business venture only, one where parents had full discretionary powers to direct their children? Damme, verily no.

The Triumph of Venus, by Boucher

First, even before the Hardwicke Act of 1753, consent between the partners was considered a prerequisite for a valid marriage ceremony. That means that in the mind of the law, children – even girls – were not their parents’ property to be given as they wanted. That is not to say that quite a few of them did not have their arms twisted or were married against their will, but the principle is important. It happened, but it does not mean it was the ideal or that everybody did it. Many parents were quite eager that their children should be happy – and while that of course involved a certain amount of prudence, but did not in any way rule out letting their children have a say.

If the attitude to marriage was often somewhat mercenary, it doesn’t mean that the view was uncontested. The debate of money without love vs. love without money raged on through the 18th century. Defoe, for example, complained of how: “little is regarded of that one essential and absolutely necessary part of the composition, called love, without which the matrimonial state… can never be happy.” Likewise, the fictional Mr. Allworthy of Fielding’s Tom Jones, though obviously extreme in his opinions, declared that love should be the only foundation for marriage and that marriages conducted for the sake of money are highly criminal.

You didn’t have to look far in the 18th century to find novels, poems and operas celebrating the idea of romantic love and thereby making the idea an integrated part of the cultural setting. Romantic love was not an alien feature. In fact, letters and diaries show that love figured very much in the minds of young men and women looking for a partner in the 18th century, though it isn’t always easy to say where love began and calculation ended. Duty compelled you to make a wise decision and the evils of poverty were easy to discern for everybody. Like Amanda Vickery says in The Gentleman’s Daughter, to make the choice between love and lucre a clear-cut one is oversimplifying things. The choice rarely appeared that simple. Also, like Vickery says “(w)ealth and rank had an intensely romantic, as well as mercenary, appeal.” If this isn’t true, why else the profusion of dukes in historical romances?

Emily, Duchess of Leinster, by Reynolds

Even so, there are examples of women flouting society altogether and doing extreme things for love – running away or even, in the case of Lady Henrietta Wentworth, marrying a footman. The Duchess of Leinster famously married her children’s tutor and Elizabeth Shackleton whose story is found in the the aforementioned The Gentleman’s Daughter, married a man of 21 at the age of 38. Yes, all of them paid a price for it, but they did it nevertheless. All these are things that would be considered ‘modern’ in a novel, when in fact they were simply ‘unusual’. Extraordinary even in some instances, but not unthinkable.

Can we agree that a woman who hoped to marry for love is not necessarily an 18th century anomaly by any means?

That brings me to three misconceptions I’d like to contest.

Do you have any historical misconceptions that bother you and if so, what are they?

12 Comments leave one →
  1. February 28, 2011 11:17 am

    Loved your post!
    We do tend to make misconceptions about history because it’s easier to lump people together than to spend the time to actually learn the details. As you said, an 18th century New England woman led a very different life than one in the aristocratic circles in London. But then, her life would have been very different a the beginning of the 18th century than at the end; and at any time along that continuum, her life would have been different if she lived in relatively cosmopolitan Salem or Boston than in a small rural village ( that was the premise of my story “Watercolorist’s Seduction”!) Moreover a girl born in a proper but wealthy Boston merchant’s family (descended from old Puritan stock) would have led a very different life than one raised in New York (with it’s old Dutch families) or Philadelphia or Richmond or Charleston. On the other hand, none of these communities was isolated from each other and there was more information passing among these cities and across the Atlantic than we might think. Fashions took a while to get to the colonies and later the US, but the ladies eventually found out what was popular in Paris and London and followed suit.

  2. February 28, 2011 12:42 pm

    Glad you enjoyed it and you make some excellent points! There is no one truth about ‘how it was’. One historical size does not fit all!

    Re-reading my post now I realized how blatantly ethnocentric it is – it assumes England is the center of the world. I can’t help but being a little amused by that since I’m not even British (or American) myself. The only explanation I can come up with is that the vast majority of historical romances are set in Britain. However, that’s no excuse to ignore that there are Chinese, Norwegian and Sudanese experiences as well. It’s especially stupid since it would have served me very well in disproving point No 1…

    I bow my head and admit that I totally ignored everything not European in a way that indicates I am blind to my own cultural bias. Mea culpa.

  3. Katherine permalink
    February 28, 2011 1:00 pm

    I enjoyed this post alot. Tought me quite a bit. I will say though, I’m not so into my history that I forget that when I pick up a Historical Romance I’m not doing so to wrap myself in 1700’s England. I’m doing it to wrap myself in the characters and unless a writer makes an OBVIOUS mistak (Ex: Microphone fully hooked up to an amp in 1700’s England) You aren’t goign to get any complaints out of me.Far be it for me to judge people’s characters, but for folks to bash an author because of minor who gives a rats butt mistakes, is just arrogance and it annoys me.

    All that said, I love history, I love writing and reading historicals and rarely do I ever choose another time period to read. I get more annoyed with writers who try to take a modern piece and make it historical, using modern speech and all. That bugs me. Ok I could go on for hours, but I’m sleepy and I”m about to stop making sense. LOL

    Great article and thanks for posting. :)

  4. Patricia permalink
    February 28, 2011 1:14 pm

    This is a great post. Its too true that historical details sort of get lumped together which is unfortunate because history itself is as colorful as our writing.

    There have been instances when historical detail needs to be bent a bit and that’s always going to happen. Doesn’t make it bad just makes it stretched out. As both a writer and reader of historical I have to say there’s been plenty of times when I’ve rolled my eyes and when that didn’t happen then! Still, part of the fun of historical romance is getting a glimpse into the worlds we build.

    Thanks for posting this – and sharing your knowledge. I’m off to read more on 10th century Brittania…

  5. February 28, 2011 1:26 pm

    I know different readers have very different attitudes to historical accuracy. It all depends where we come from if we even notice, right? I’ve read some film reviews where people roll their eyes at costume details I don’t even notice… Then again, I’m usually bothered by modern attitudes in characters.

    Either way, the criticism should in itself be correct or it all turns a bit silly, I think.

  6. February 28, 2011 2:10 pm

    I get dinged occasionally by reviewers who insist that the characters in my Regency erotic romances would never have behaved in such a salacious manner. But that tends to be because readers lump the Regency in with the Victorian age. The reason the Victorian age was ostensibly so repressed was a reaction to the more open sexuality of the Regency period. A lot of history is like that-one generation reacting against the perceived excesses of the previous generation etc etc
    So, yes, I agree with you completely. :)

  7. February 28, 2011 2:45 pm

    I don’t mind the little “play along” moments. Really. Everybody smelled bad in the middle ages, but I am cool with the only two people alive at the time smelling good being my hero and heroine.

    It’s more INACCURACY in general, or blatant stupidity. I recently read a book set during in the court of Edward I. CONSTANT phrases straight out of Shakespeare and somebody singing Greensleeves. Really?

    And just read, yesterday, an error in a historical that could just have well been in a contemporary. Six stallions tethered outside a tavern. Ok. But there was no tavern left after a few minutes.

    • March 1, 2011 3:52 pm

      I we should remember that writing fiction is lying and writing good fiction is lying convincingly. If you assume that someone isn’t going to spot that you put a song hundreds of years too early in your book, then why assume they’d be shocked if you name dropped a song they didn’t know? If you say there is a song called whatever you call it, there is and if you make it sound in line with your period, no one will notice it’s fake unless they are doctors of medieval music and then they still won’t mind if the song you made up is plausible.

      And, lol, stallions on the rampage is no pretty thing. :)

  8. February 28, 2011 5:06 pm

    Well, potatoes in 14th C Scotland will do it for me. Or people in medievals eating raw apples. Or peasants with “spiced” stews. Sorry, I’m a bit of a foodie.

    Other than that, it’s the insistence on illiteracy. I read medievals mostly, and yes, lots of people had no idea what those silly markings were. If they were in Latin. People seem to forget that cultures other than Rome had and used written language. Even the women.

    • March 1, 2011 4:05 pm

      And everybody always having fresh meat and no one seemingly preserving anything? I’m a foodie too. :)

      I think the Middle Ages is often depicted quite unfairly. I have a textbook that says that the average Frenchman ate better in the 14th century than in any of the following centuries, up until after the Revolution – spiceless food , though. But what does that matter when ‘everybody knows’ that the Middle Ages were full of illiterate peasants eating spiced stews?

      I’ve heard a lot of grumblings about how people should be illiterate in my era too, but England actually had a pretty good rate of people who could read in the 18th compared to most other European countries.

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