Things That Make Me Go… Hmmm…
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.
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!
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.
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?
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?