#TalkingPoint: Is Historical Romance Rewriting History?

May 3, 2017

 

PHS columnist, Nicole Locke discusses whether historical romances rewrite history, and looks at the rewriting history of a familiar fairytale!

 

Do historical romances rewrite history? The answer to that question: Yes, and er, no. Well, maybe. It’s at least changing Romantic History. 

 

There that’s the discussion over now; you can go on with your day.

 

No? You need something more? Okay. In truth, History is always rewritten. Even a careful historian will muddy the facts they find by their age, experience and mood. By their viewpoint, prejudices, and the very decade they write it. By the fact that the historian is missing great oceans of information because many past voices weren’t recorded at all. Thus, as accurate as historical facts can be (the ones we’re left with), there’s still elements of…murkiness. It’s why we continually ask, ‘But what really happened?’

 

Then there’s Love. That mercurial, intangible, wonderful emotion. Why do some couples fall in love while dancing around a ballroom and others while hurling apples at each other? If there’s any emotion we want to understand more and won’t, Love is it.

 

Who would be crazy enough to combine the two? Historical Romance Authors.

 

So how to navigate the murky waters? The key, the oar, is emotion. If we’re talking about historical romance, the viewpoint, the influence of the story, will always be Love.

 

But that doesn’t leave History behind since Love occurs during a period of time. How is that love; how are those characters, using or influencing the history (to us) around them?

 

Those characters must use the environment they’re in to find love. Sometimes love occurs when the hero finds a lost shoe. Or when the heroine crashes a party with a fabulous dress and a golden carriage.

 

In historical romance, when love happens because a shoe is returned, it’s important to get the facts right. The shoe is used by the characters. That is their environment when they fall in love. What kind of shoe? A boot, moccasin, chopine or slap sole?

 

Ah, yes, then we sail to a deeper and murkier bit of history. Research. Even if we look past the facts being muddied by disagreeing historians and missing past voices, we also have centuries that are missing detailed words and pictures. I’m often looking at clothing details from later centuries that depicted how the 1200’s dressed. I have no idea what a shoe looked like for entire populations. I’m constantly asking, ‘But what was it really like?’

 

Murky waters, indeed. Still, it’s the history we have to work with, and it’s what our characters use to fall in love. Because of those variables, historical romance can be written endlessly. The Regency period was roughly 42 years. There are more romances written than actual days of that entire period!

 

Is that the end of the discussion? Historical Romance is Rewriting History because of murky facts and intangible variable love?

 

No. Because there’s one more variable….or maybe two. It’s those variables that are driving and changing the story…and the past.

 

With Historical Romance, we’re not only talking History and Romance. We’re talking about the Author and the Reader. Their viewpoints, their emotion, their idea of Love.

 

They’ll influence the romance taking place…in history, and in doing so, they will change history.

 

How? The Modern Author will try to relate to the Modern Reader. Don’t forget there’s this Author (in the café’ with all the trappings and stress of modern life) writing about Love (and all its variables), set in the past (with all the unknown murky facts) for a Reader.

 

These are stories and they’re being told! Is your imagination drowning with all the possibilities? Mine, too. Writing historical romance about does my head in. 

 

It’s easier if we look at the story of Cinderella. Or rather, the first telling of Cinderella, which took place around 1st century BC, and was written by Greek historian Strabo.

 

It’s a story about Rhodopis, who lived in Ancient Egypt. While she was bathing, an eagle snatched one of her sandals. On that day, the king just happened to be out in the open air, and the eagle dropped the sandal onto his lap. And so the intrigued king sent his men on a quest to find the woman, and return her shoe.

 

Over the years, this story has changed. No longer in Egypt but in France. No longer sandals, but glass slippers. And maybe not even those. Think red squirrel. ‘Vair’ was a heraldic fur. While ‘verre’ is the word for glass.

 

Sandals to fur to glass. Was it an intentional or unintentional change? Was it those murky historical facts and disagreeing historians or was the author wanting to relate to the reader?

 

Maybe the glass slipper author thought sandals wouldn’t match Cinderella’s ballgown. Or perhaps her feet would get sweaty in fur and there’s a bedroom scene coming up! I know sweaty feet wouldn’t do it for me, and I’m guessing not for my readers either. Yes, they want historical accuracy, shoes must exist, but they want their viewpoint of emotion, their romance first.

 

Which gets us to the point. What was romantic in one time period, won’t be romantic in another. This is true for historical artifacts (shoes), and for historical customs (stepsisters eyes are no longer plucked out). It’s also true in how the character’s act. With exceptions of course, in Ancient Egypt, returning a shoe and finding love might work. But modern heroines are more likely to have already bought a new pair and expect something more.

 

Thus, certain history needs to change in order to stay romantic for the Modern Reader. They expect something more from romances. In that way, Authors and Readers change history because of Love.

 

When it comes to Historical Romance, the key is emotion. The viewpoint will always be Love. Love changes everything, even History...and fairy tales.

 

How do you feel about historical romances rewriting history and the retelling of classics?  Share your viewpoint with us in the comments or on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

 

Nicole's latest book, In Debt to the Enemy Lord, is out now.  For more information about her and her writing, check out her website and follow her on FacebookTwitterGoogle+ and Pinterest.

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